Homer N. Motsinger and the Motsinger Device Mfg. Co.

Reader Contribution by Bob Eley
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On May 18, 1900, representatives of the Motsinger Device Manufacturing Company broke ground for their new 40-by-100-foot brick factory located just north of the Pendleton Falls on land acquired from the Pendleton Window Glass Company. This was the fruition of Homer N. Motsinger’s dream to manufacture his newly patented Auto Sparker. The factory was to initially employ 30 skilled tradesmen and 16 laborers working in two shifts. The town of Pendleton agreed to finance the building and supply the natural gas on the fear of Motsinger moving his factory to another city.

Homer Motsinger was born in Shoals, Indiana, attended Purdue University and moved to Pendleton around 1895 where he married Inez Cole, the daughter of a prominent Pendleton businessman. The couple lived on North Main Street before moving to their newly built home at 204 West Street in 1900. 

 Their new residence was designed by New York’s leading architect, Stanford White, who also had designed Fifth Avenue mansions for the Vanderbilts and the Astors. (An interesting side note is that 53 year-old Stanford White was murdered by Harry Thaw six years after designing the Motsinger home. Thaw was the jealous husband of his much younger wife and noted actress. The incident occurred at the Madison Square Roof Garden, a building that, coincidentally, White had also designed. Harry Thaw went to trial for the murder of White, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and rode to the asylum on a private train. Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Thaw, became the subject of the movie, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, with her life portrayed by a young Joan Collins.)

Homer Motsinger continued to develop and receive patents for gasoline engine-related accessories. His two-story lab was located on his property immediately to the west of his house. (This lab building was later relocated across High Street to the north and reduced to a single story.) In addition to the patent for the Auto Sparker, Homer Motsinger received twenty other patents for ancillary engine devices including a carburetor, magneto, electric igniter, thermostat, and muffler.

Patent no. 907,628 for a gas engine spark timer, granted to Homer Motsinger in 1908

The Motsinger Device Company established additional offices in New York and Chicago. Motsinger was prolific in advertising his products through trade magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and was even featured in an article in Scientific American. It should be noted that Motsinger had many quality competitors, including Anderson’s Remy Electric for the business of manufacturing friction magnetos for gasoline engines. Homer Motosinger also pursued potential customers by establishing displays at the 1903 Chicago Auto Show and the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
Homer and the Motsinger Device Company relocated to West Lafayette, Indiana, in 1910, with his house being sold to Ben Phipps, a local hardware dealer. The Pendleton factory buildings were later acquired by the Lee Canning Company and subsequently by the Fall Creek Canning Company. Now it is the sanctuary and offices for the Family Life Church. The new two-story brick building in West Lafayette was considerably larger than the Pendleton facility and was built with hopes of increasing production and expanding markets.

From serial numbers, it can be determined that the Pendleton factory produced approximately 53,000 Auto Sparkers at $20 each and 5000 magnetos at $10 each (about $500 and $250 each, respectively, in 2012 dollars). Even though the West Lafayette factory much was much larger and in operation longer, they only produced 20,000 of the complex Auto Sparkers. However, they did produce about 17,000 magnetos.

Friction magnetos of the early 1900s had a leather pulley which rotated the armature when the pulley was placed in contact with the engine’s flywheel. The unique quality of the Auto Sparker was described as being a dynamo designed to initially provide enough spark for gasoline engines to start without the normally required battery assist. Thus, the “Auto” in Auto Sparker did not refer to “automobile” but meant the unit could provide enough electricity to start the engine automatically by merely rotating the flywheel by hand.  Homer’s later Motsinger D.C. Magneto was designed to perform the same task at a cheaper cost. Unfortunately, these low-tension electric generators failed to provide sufficiently high enough voltage to meet demands. Newer designed high-tension magnetos produced higher voltage and had a more efficient direct gear drive rather than a friction pulley. Unfortunately, the Motsinger Company never successfully developed a high-tension magneto.

Homer Motsinger adjusted his manufacturing output in West Lafayette to produce artillery shells for World War I.  Sadly, he was not able to recoup the money invested for the required tooling changes, and his company suffered severe financial losses. Having aged beyond his years, Motsinger divested his ownership in his beloved company and was later employed by the U.S. Ball Bearing Mfg. Company in Chicago for a short period of time.

The manufacturing industry lost a prolific inventor and entrepreneur when 45-year-old Homer Motsinger died in August, 1920, in Chicago.  Even though his family had lived in several different cities, Homer always considered Pendleton, Indiana, to be his home.  Homer N. Motsinger, his wife, Inez, and their four children are all buried in Grove Lawn Cemetery and lie together 150 yards north of his “Factory by the Falls.”

Bob Eley is a collector of Motsinger items and other Indiana-made magnetos. Contact him at 131 N. Main St.,Pendleton, IN 46064. This article also appeared inThe Herald Bulletinand is printed here with the permission of the author.

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