Evinrude Didn’t Invent the Outboard
Ole Evinrude is the man most associated with the earliest outboard motors. But Evinrude didn’t invent the outboard—he just made it famous. Before the turn of the 20th century, both electric- and gasoline-powered outboards had been built in small numbers. Gustave Trouvé, a French electrical engineer, built an electric outboard in 1881, carrying out “sea trials” on the Seine; apparently, he built only one motor before moving on to other inventions, including the battery-powered headlamp and an electric horn, which he also mounted on a boat. American Motors Company sold a handful of gas outboard motors in the late 1890s, and in 1905, Cameron Waterman filed a patent application for a Boat-Propelling Device, marketed as the Porto-Motor.
But it was Evinrude who clamped outboards onto the transoms of thousands, and by now millions, of boats. He built his first one in 1907, a 3-horse, one-cylinder model that was patented in 1911. By 1912, Evinrude had 300 workers building outboards, including Arthur Davidson, who, with his friend William S. Harley, also built motorcycles. You might have heard of them. (Wisconsin lore says that Ole Evinrude helped Harley and Davidson develop the 405 cc engine that powered the first Harley-Davidson.) In 1919, Evinrude built a lighter, more efficient twocylinder motor, made partly of aluminum, the Evinrude Light Twin Outboard. By then, one of his competitors was the Johnson Brothers Motor Company. In 1935, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, Outboard Marine Corporation owned both Evinrude and Johnson, along with Briggs & Stratton. (Stephen Briggs started OMC in 1929 as the Outboard Motor Company.) When I was a kid, the only outboards worth consideration in the Smith household were Evinrude and Johnson.
But how about Mercury outboards? When Evinrude built his first outboard, Carl Kiekhaefer was about 1 year old. In 1927, Kiekhaefer worked for Evinrude as a draftsman for a short time; he got fired and kicked around for a while, earning some of the more than 200 patents he held during his life. Then, in 1939, he bought a struggling outboard-motor builder in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. There were 300 defective motors in stock; Kiekhaefer got them working, sold them to Montgomery Ward and Mercury Marine was born. The following year Mercury took orders for 16,000 motors at the New York Boat Show. The company has been a leading innovator in marine propulsion ever since—it built the first V-6 outboard, the 60-horsepower Mark 75, in 1957, and the first 100-horsepower outboard in 1962 (it was painted Phantom Black). I thought it was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen—100 horsepower! But I couldn’t convince Dad; he had Evinrude in his blood, so I had to admire that big Merc from afar.