An Old Traction Engine Model Leads to a Modern Mystery
Seven years ago, I bought a wooden model of an agricultural traction engine at an antique mall in Lebanon, Ohio, and thereon hangs this tale.
About 20 percent of the model's parts were missing, and I wanted to recreate them to restore the model. First, I had to learn what make of engine it was. It bore a resemblance to a Wood, Taber & Morse portable, manufactured in Eaton, N.Y., but it had an extra shaft running in front of the firebox beneath the boiler. I was stumped. I called the antique dealer to ask where he had acquired the model. He replied that he purchased it at a flea market. Since I could not trace the engine's origins, I postponed restoration indefinitely.
Wooden model of Lehmer's traction gear on a portable engine with a boiler 14 inches long. This is the model that launched Robert T. Rhode's investigation of Isaac Lehmer and his traction design.
Last year, I was paging through Jack Norbeck's Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, and my gaze became riveted to a photograph on page 42 in the section of Jack's book devoted to portable engines. I recognized the picture as the inspiration for my model, extra shaft and all. Jack's caption contained intriguing details, which he later told me had come from Raymond Laizure, publisher of The Stumptown Steamer. The engine featured in Norbeck's book was indeed a 6 HP Wood, Taber & Morse portable, but, as Norbeck's caption informed me, in 1875, Isaac Lehmer had a 'set of patterns made from his own designs for the attachments necessary to make it a steam traction engine.'
I contacted Larry Jones, curator of agricultural exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, to inquire if he had additional information on the Lehmer traction engine conversion package. He called my attention to a photograph on page 7 of Floyd Clymer's Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines. I noticed that the engines in the pictures in Norbeck and Clymer were similar but not the same. Both resembled my model, yet all three differed slightly from one another. Intriguingly, the Clymer photo showed the words 'Lehmer Traction Gear' on the engineer's platform. It was becoming clear to me that Lehmer had formed a company to sell his traction conversion kit. Research brought to light the fascinating story.
Lehmer and Baumgartel's Inventions
Isaac Lehmer was born on Feb. 17, 1844 near Shanesville in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. I When Isaac was 17, the Civil War erupted. He eventually served as a private in Company H of the 29th Indiana Infantry, a volunteer regiment that saw action at Shiloh, Corinth, Stone's River and Chickamauga.2 Isaac married Hannah Scott. They had two children: Henry and Mary.3 The Isaac Lehmer family lived in Greenfield Township.
In 1875, Lehmer traveled to nearby Sturgis, Mich., to seek Henry 'Hank' Baumgartel's help in producing Lehmer's invention: a traction conversion package for portable steam engines. Born in Pennsylvania on Dec. 13,1851, Baumgartel had come to Michigan at an early age. He eventually worked for the city's old foundry. Established in 1837, the shop by the 1850s was manufacturing plows, scrapers, and steam engines, including a sawmill engine that ran on sawdust. In the following decade, the Sturgis Foundry, located on North Fourth Street, advertised cultivators, hand-held rakes and horse-drawn rakes, in addition to plows and steam engines. The Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad (later the New York Central) transported many of the foundry's products to distant markets.4
Baumgartel was an expert foundryman.5 Adapting Lehmer's plans, Baumgartel created a traction conversion kit that included an idler gear, a friction clutch inside a pulley on a shaft bracketed under the belly of the boiler, a lever for putting the device in motion, and (most likely) a differential or compensating gear. Lehmer used his Wood, Taber & Morse 'traction' portable engine for 20 years.6 He and Baumgartel sold conversion packages to others eager to transform horse-drawn portable steamers into traction engines.
Photo in Floyd Clymer's Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines showing Lehmer's traction gear, which converted a portable into a traction engine.
Although many traction steam engines had been built in California before the 1870s, traction devices in the Midwest were relatively rare - although not unheard of- in 1875.7 Lehmer's achievement was noteworthy. Page 402 of Ira Ford's History of Northeast Indiana stated, 'Isaac Lehmer is remembered not only as an early settler of Greenfield Township but as inventor of one of the first traction engines.' Page 88 of John W. Hanan's LaGrange County Centennial History claimed that Lehmer 'built the first friction clutch traction threshing engine in the country.'
Baumgartel also made history. In 1883, as a foreman at the Sturgis Foundry & Plow Works, he invented the first automobile in Sturgis, Mich. A gasoline burner produced the heat to make steam in a 140 psi water-tube boiler to run a two-cylinder engine that powered the car. In the June 22, 1918 edition of the Sturgis Daily Journal, Baumgartel said that his vehicle attained a top speed of 10 mph on a good road. Historian Robert E. Hair notes the Daily Journal's assertion that the Baumgartel auto was 'the first automobile or the first conveyance which ever traveled under its own power in Michigan.'8 The car had no differential and no pneumatic tires, but it did boast a steam whistle to warn pedestrians of its approach.
Lehmer may have assisted Baumgartel in the invention of the self-propelled car, or else, inspired by Baumgartel's example, he may have produced his own automobile. Hanan states that Lehmer 'also built a gasoline driven horseless carriage years before the automobile was known. The imperfection of the gas engine, which he built himself, was the chief hindrance to his progress and caused him to abandon the project. The contrivance actually did carry two men over sandy roads.'9 Did this car have a gasoline motor as claimed, or was Hanan referring to Baumgartel's automobile, equipped with a gasoline burner? Page 75 of the Illustrated 1893 Atlas and Columbian Souvenir of LaGrange County, Ind. listed Lehmer as a resident freeholder, but he gave a Sturgis, Mich., post office address. His close ties to Sturgis and his having worked with Baumgartel to manufacture traction engine conversion kits make it seem likely that Lehmer collaborated with Baumgartel to invent the automobile.
In the census records of 1880 and 1900 for Greenfield Township, Lehmer's occupation was listed as 'grain thresher' and 'thresher.' For most of those years, his Wood, Taber & Morse traction conversion engine must have made the rounds on his threshing ring. Isaac Lehmer passed away on Oct. 9, 1906 and was buried in the Pretty Prairie, Ind., Cemetery. Hank Baumgartel died on Nov. 22, 1929 and was buried in Sturgis, Mich.
Larry Jones of the Smithsonian reminded me to examine this paragraph in my book entitled The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen: 'Ira C. Mast of Elkhart, Ind., told this story concerning his father, Jacob, and his father's partner, Isaac Lehmer: 'Lehmer and Mast took their old horse-drawn engine and converted it into a traction engine. This was done by belt pulleys and gears, with the first friction clutch ever used, which Lehmer and Mast developed and put into the large pulley. About the year of 1898, Nichols & Shepard Company and the Rumely Company got into a lawsuit on patent rights on a friction clutch. Finding out about this old engine of Lehmer's and Mast's with its friction clutch, the old engine was taken to La Porte, Ind., to prove in court that a clutch similar to (Rumely's) had been developed and put into practical use prior to theirs.''10 Ira published his father's anecdote on page 4 in the January/February 1973 issue of Iron-Men Album magazine.
According to the WPA Death Index, Elkhart County, Ind., Jacob Mast died on Nov. 11, 1904. The Elkhart Truth newspaper carried his obituary. He was a farmer aged 47. Although he was approximately 13 years younger than Lehmer, Mast could easily have been Lehmer's business partner in the 1870s, when Lehmer was manufacturing his traction conversion kits.
A frustrating search lasting many months gave me no additional information about the court case involving the Lehmer friction clutch. Then suddenly, thanks to the diligent work of Thomas Heard and Carol Furnish of the library of the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, I hit the proverbial pay dirt.
Six Years of Litigation
On June 1, 1900, Judge Marcus W. Acheson delivered his opinion in Bliss v. Reed, a protracted case brought before the Circuit Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania. He presided over a courtroom in the building at Seventh Avenue and Grant Street in Pittsburgh. Today, a portrait of Acheson hangs in the U.S. District Court building. He resembles Joshua Chamberlain of Little Round Top fame.11
John H. Elward's 1883 patent for a method of supplying traction for a steam engine. Elward, superintendent at the Minnesota Thresher Co., joined in a lawsuit against B.D. Reed for infringing on patents for traction devices.
The turn-of-the-century case on which Acheson ruled took an unusual form. B.D. Reed sold Frick, Gaar-Scott and Huber steam engines and related equipment. Three inventors sued him when he began to offer for sale engines that infringed the inventors' patents for devices used in traction engineering. The inventors were John H. Elward, superintendent at the Minnesota Thresher Company in Stillwater, Minn., Charles M. Giddings, design engineer for the Russell Company in Massillon, Ohio, and John C. Titus, mechanical engineer for the Huber Company in Marion, Ohio. One of the attorneys for the three complainants was H.H. Bliss. Oddly, the title of the case bears his name.
John H. Elward's 1883 patent for a method of supplying traction for a steam engine. Elward, superintendent at the Minnesota Thresher Co., joined in a lawsuit against B.D. Reed for infringing on patents for traction devices.
In 1916 and 1917, Giddings published essays in the American Thresherman and Farm Power recalling the case. He claimed to have invented the first friction clutch, which he called 'a godsend to the owners and users of the traction engine.' He added, 'It was, in fact, so indispensable that tractors could not be sold without one, which led a large majority of the tractor manufacturers to appropriate the invention for their own use without license, resulting in a six years' law suit costing a great deal of money on each side. The 20 different companies mutually agreed to divide the expense of an attempt to break down the patent rather than acknowledge the inventor's right by purchasing a manufacturer's license, a fair sample of the left-handed encouragement inventors often receive from wealthy manufacturers who never believe in the Golden Rule.'12
Charles M. Giddings, design engineer for the Russell Company in Massillon, Ohio, received this patent for a flywheel friction clutch and traction drive in 1885. Giddings claimed to have invented the first friction clutch.
Giddings referred to 20 companies, but the case before Judge Acheson concerned only three. The discrepancy suggests one of two possibilities: that approximately 17 additional companies were in league with the three firms named in the suit and/or that a series of other cases preceded the one brought before Judge Acheson. If there were other cases in advance of the one that Acheson considered, they likely were left undecided and therefore never reported in law digests. I shall return to this probability later.
Readers may question, as I did, why Giddings and two other inventors, none of whom worked for the same company, collaborated to sue an agricultural implement salesman. One plausible explanation is that, by bringing suit against Reed, the inventors could challenge three companies for infringement of patents without the necessity of each inventor and/or his firm having to sue every infringing firm separately. Furthermore, in a strict sense, the inventors' patents were not infringed until the moment when a machine copying their work was sold.
Giddings wrote that in 1890-91 Frick adopted his patented flywheel friction clutch design -without the proper license. Apparently, Giddings held no grudge against Frick, for he praised the manufacturer, acknowledging 'the good work done by the two rival firms of Frick & Company and the Geiser Manufacturing Company, both of Waynesboro, Pa., in the East, and that done by the Russell & Company of Massillon, Ohio, in the West.'13
John C. Titus, mechanical engineer for the Huber Company in Marion, Ohio, received this patent for a flywheel friction clutch in 1884, a year before Giddings' patent was awarded.
Giddings first came to Massillon as a salesman for the Waters Governor Company. In 1882, he entered into the employ of the Russell Company and embarked on a radical new design for the manufacturer's engines. He said that the first Russell engines were copies of the Wood, Taber & Morse portables. Ironically, Lehmer fitted a Wood, Taber & Morse engine with his traction conversion device, but the portables of the Eaton, N.Y., firm were popular in the 19th century. Russell's early traction engines used the bevel gear, also known as a 'sunflower gear,' patented by Colonel George Rogers on Feb. 15, 1876. (For more information on the Rogers patent, #173,498, see my article 'Who Built the First Traction Engine in America?' Engineers and Engines Magazine 44.2 : 14-15.)
Russell was producing a spur-gear engine with a locking differential when Giddings came on board. In 1883, Giddings brought out his pioneering design, 'in refreshing contrast to' earlier Russell engines.14 He did not patent his friction clutch apparatus until 1885, but Giddings proved to Judge Acheson's satisfaction that he had invented it in 1883 - the remarkable year when Baumaartel built his steam car. Judge Acheson's opinion in Bliss v. Reed began by reviewing the specifications of Elward patent #272,670, granted on Feb. 20, 1883.15 Part of Reed's defense was that the Elward patent did not specify a flywheel in its claims. Without a flywheel as part of the patent, no infringement by Frick, Gaar-Scott, Huber, or any other company could have occurred, according to Reed's attorneys. Acheson determined that the patent drawing showed a flywheel and that a flywheel was essential to the working of the patented device, thereby refuting that portion of the Reed defense.
Reed s attorneys argued that there was no infringement because friction clutch devices, as well as differential gears, had existed prior to the Elward, Giddings, and Titus patents. Acheson replied that 'the defendant's counsel earnestly contend that Elward's claim covers a mere aggregation of old mechanical devices, and therefore is void. A careful examination of the patent and the proofs, however, has satisfied me that the defense is not well founded. While the constituents entering into Elward's organization may there each perform its own special function, yet they also cooperate to a common end otherwise not attainable. By their associated action a new and useful result is brought about. The elemental parts specified in the claim stand in peculiar relationship. The friction-clutch mechanism is interposed between the driving engine and the compensating gear, and must be so placed to accomplish the desired object. I am, then, of the opinion that we have here a true combination in the sense of the patent law.'
Acheson may have been alluding to a series of earlier undecided cases that I have already mentioned as a possibility. Perhaps an engine with a traction conversion kit -including a friction clutch - manufactured by Isaac Lehmer and Jacob Mast was brought to the Rumely Company to show that friction clutches existed before the Elward, Giddings and Titus patents, although I have found no record corroborating the Mast anecdote.
J.B. Bartholomew, to whom Charles M. Giddings assigned his patent for a friction clutch; Bartholomew later served as president of the Avery Company (photo in Men of Illinois in the Peoria Public Libary).
It is also possible that Ira C. Mast misquoted his father and that another Indiana-based firm, the Gaar-Scott Company, had attempted to prove that Lehmer's friction clutch invention made later friction clutches non-patentable. After all, Gaar-Scott was one of the three companies named in Bliss v. Reed. Also, Ira may have forgotten that it was the Russell Company (or, more specifically, Charles M. Giddings), not the Nichols & Shepard Company, that sued for infringement. Ira remembered that his father gave the date of the case as 'around 1898.' Giddings said that the litigation dragged on for six years, culminating in 1902. It seems unlikely that Mast was referring to a separate case, unless it were an undecided and therefore unre-ported one preceding Bliss v. Reed. Law librarians have assured me it is highly probable that Ira C. Mast's story is directly related to the Pennsylvania case.
Next, Acheson stated that the Frick Company took advantage of Giddings's friction clutch invention, patent #330,576, granted on Nov. 17, 1885. Acheson upheld the fact that Giddings's patent was for a new device, even though it was anticipated in Elward's patent. The judge explained that the Elward clutch used a cone that slid into the hub of the flywheel, while Giddings's clutch employed toggle arms to force wooden shoes against the inner rim of the flywheel.
Reed's counsel argued that, at an unspecified time after the patent date of 1885, Giddings had assigned his patent to J.B. Bartholomew et. al. The Latin abbreviation stands for 'and others.' Since the Giddings patent was handed over to Bartholomew 'and others,' Frick, Gaar-Scott, Huber and any other companies that wanted to avail themselves of the invention were allowed to use it, said Reed's attorneys. Acheson rejected the argument, saying that Bartholomew had sole title and that the Latin phrase 'et. al.' designated Bartholomew's heirs or anyone to whom he might wish to assign the patent, not other companies. Besides, Bartholomew had conveyed the title back to Giddings in 1894. (Do Iron-Men Album readers know if Giddings left Russell to work for Bartholomew, who later served as president of the Avery Company of Peoria, 111.?)
Acheson expressed the opinion that the Frick engines that Reed had sold were equipped with the Titus clutch-arm invention, part of patent #302,449, granted on July 22, 1884. The defense argued that Giddings's patent used similar clutch arms before Titus patented them and, thus, there was no infringement of the Titus patent because of prior invention. Acheson decided that Titus's clutch shoes acted centrifugally, not by Giddings's toggle arrangement, and that Titus's invention was patentable.
Raymond Laizure's picture of Lehmer's traction gear in Jack Norbeck's Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines.
Judge Acheson concluded that Reed had sold engines that infringed the Elward, Giddings and Titus patents. The transcript of Judge Acheson's decision leaves the impression that, of the three firms named in the suit, the Frick Company most obviously infringed the three inventors' patents, although all three manufacturers were found guilty.
On Jan. 18, 1901, Reed launched an appeal heard in the Third Circuit. District Judge Buffington published his opinion that no error was committed in the previous case heard by Judge Acheson and that Acheson's conclusion stood. In reaffirming Acheson's opinion, Buffington acknowledged that the various devices in the Elward patent had existed prior to Elward's invention, but, in 'their new relation, the three elements of flywheel stored power, friction clutch and compensating gear were made to so mutually cooperate, co-act, and in effect unify with each other, that they produced a new unitary result, to wit, a traction engine adapted to meet abnormal maximum demands by the use of normally minimum mechanism.'
On Feb. 8, 1902, Reed's attorneys attempted to overturn Acheson's decision on a technicality.16 They claimed that Elward had patented his traction arrangement in Canada on April 23, 1881. The Canadian patent was good for 15 years and expired in 1896; therefore, in 1900, Elward had no right to bring suit against Reed. According to Reed's attorneys, Elward had suppressed knowledge of the Canadian patent's existence and had acted in bad faith when he failed to proclaim to the United States Patent Office that he held a foreign patent for the same traction devices. Once more, Reed's attorneys came before Judge Acheson, who stated that Elward had not exhibited bad faith because Elward's Canadian patent was for an apparatus different from the traction arrangement that he patented in the United States. Acheson's 1902 decision brought to an end six years of costly litigation.
The record is silent with respect to whether or not Frick, Gaar-Scott and Huber began to pay licensing fees to Elward and Giddings, and Frick and Gaar-Scott to Titus (who worked for Huber), but I assume they must have done so. Judge Acheson placed an injunction against the companies that, it seems to me, could have been removed only by securing the proper licenses.
The Ongoing Mystery
Who built my model of the Lehmer traction gear conversion kit on a Wood, Taber & Morse portable engine - and why? I have seen two patent models, and the parts on my wooden engine closely resemble the parts used in such models. Did Lehmer hold a patent for the conversion kit, and, if so, was my model designed to secure the patent?
The patent models I have inspected were not painted, but my engine had a coat of flat black when I acquired it. The wood faintly exuded the odor of a pigpen. I surmise that my engine may have spent part of its life in a barn where hogs were kept.
Larry Jones wonders if my model might originally have been used as a display during the protracted court battle over traction engineering patents. In the late 1800s, attorneys in cases involving such exhibits retained them, although courts occasionally warehoused items used in trials. No displays have been sold from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Despite the appearance that my model is an antique that could date back to the late 19th century, it may be a more recent product of a craftsman imitating the photographs in the Clymer volume and Jack Norbeck's encyclopedia. I may never know.
My research into the model's history, however, gave me enough information to restore it to its full glory.
1. RootsWeb.com 18 May 2002; http://worldconnect.
rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi? surname=Lehmer&given= Isaac;
Ford, Ira. History of Northeast Indiana. Vol. 2. Chicago: Lewis,
2. Civil War Soldiers & Sailors. 18 May 2002 ; http://www.itd. nps.gov/cwss/ Personz_Detail.cfm?PER_NBR=3 123853; 29th Regiment, Indiana Infantry.18 May 2002; http://www.itd.nps.gov/ zcwss/template.cfm?unit-name=29th%20Regiment%2C% 10Indiana
3. 1900 Census.
4. Hair, Robert E. Sturgis and Its Industrial Growth. Sturgis: Dresser, 1998.
5. 'Aged Sturgis Resident Dies.' Sturgis Daily Journal, 22 Nov. 1929: 1.
6. Norbeck, Jack. Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines. Sarasota: Crestline, 1976.
7. Alexander, Jack. Steam Power on California Roads and Farms (1858-1911): A Survey of California's First Motor Vehicles. Tigard, OR: Binder, 1998; Rhode, Robert T. 'Who Built the First Traction Engine in America?' Engineers and Engines Magazine 44.2 (1998): 14-15.
8. Hair, Robert E. Sturgis, Michigan: Its Story to 1930. Sturgis: Hair, 1992; Sturgis Daily Journal, June 22, 1918.
9. Hanan, John W. LaGrange County Centennial History. 1928. 88.
10. Rhode, Robert T. The Harvest Story: Recollections of Old-Time Threshermen (West Lafayette: Purdue OP, 2001).
11. I am indebted to Michael Rush, Deputy Clerk of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, for this observation about Judge Acheson's appearance.
12. Giddings, Charles M. 'Development of the Traction Engine in America.' American Thresherman and Farm Power. 1916-17. Rpt. in Development of the Traction Engine in America. Lancaster: Stemgas, 1980. 22-23.
13. Giddings. 16.
14. Giddings. 17.
15. Bliss v. Reed, 102 F. 903 (C.C.W.D. PA 1900), Aff'd, 106 F. 314 (C.C.A.3 PA, 1901).
16. Bliss v. Reed, 113 F. 946 (C.C.W.D. PA 1902).
Numerous people and organizations helped me to research this article. I owe them my gratitude and acknowledge their valuable assistance by naming them here:
Antique Automobile Club of America
Carol Furnish, Assistant Director, Instruction and Outreach Services, Library, Salmon P. Chase College of Law
Thomas Heard, Associate Director, Information and Technology, Library, Salmon P. Chase College of Law
Larry Jones, Curator of Agricultural Exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution
Rebecca Kelm, Reference Librarian, W. Frank Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University
Leslie Kendall, Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles
Tracy Koenig, Assistant Department Manager, Public Documents and Patents, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Walter Miller, Antique Auto Literature
Jack Norbeck, author of Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines
Mary Oliver, Archivist, Curator, and Registrar of the Montgomery County (Ohio) Historical Society
Mark Patrick, Curator of the National Automobile History Collection
Jeanine Rhodes, Reference Assistant, Elkhart Public Library
Michael Rush, Deputy Clerk of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania
Fred Shapiro of Burbank, Calif.
John Skarstadt, Curator of the F. Hal Higgins Collection in the Special Collections of the Library of the University of California at Davis
Elaine Pichaske Sokolowski, ReferenceDepartment, Peoria Public Library
Jane Spencer, Reference Librarian, Elkhart Public Library
Sue Steinke, Local History Room, Dayton & Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library
Barbara Thompson, Librarian, National Automobile History Collection, Detroit Public Library
Gerry Vogel, Assistant Manager, Adult Services Division, Dayton & Montgomery County Public Library
Karla A. Weidner, History Room Librarian, Sturgis Public Library
Amanda Wisler, Technology Coordinator, LaGrange County (Ind.) Library
Historian and author Robert T. Rhode is a regular contributor to the Iron-Men Album. Contact him at: 4745 Glenway Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45238, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.