Archive:George Eli Whitney (1868-1963)
George Eli Whitney (1862 - 1963) - Automobile Pioneer
Biography by Jeanne (Whitney) Muse
George Eli Whitney 1915
| George Eli Whitney, an early pioneer in automotive history, "was tinkering with steam cars before the turn of the 20th century. While others turned their attention to the new-fangled gasoline engine, he stayed with steam, founding the Whitney Motor Wagon Company. He designed and built a succession of steam-driven carriages, starting with, he believed, the first steam-driven car ever built. Many of the ideas that found their way into the steam automobile are attributable to him. The Stanley Brothers, famous founders of the Stanley Steamer, sought advice from him and used some of his ideas in their first cars."1
He was born on June 10, 1862 [1868 per Pierce6]. "His father, John Webster Parkins Whitney, was a highly skilled engraver who made gold and silver dies for the Philadelphia Mint. Uncle Amos Whitney founded Pratt & Whitney Company, which manufactures over 1/3 of the world's jet engines for the military and the airlines. His uncle Clarence Whitney founded the Whitney Chain Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and his great grandfather's brother was the famous inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney.";2 "Born in 1862, Whitney was raised in Boston where he displayed his mechanical ability at a very young age. At 12, his favorite playground was the yard of the Boston and Albany Railroad where he spent many hours watching the "iron horses" roll by. Franklin D. Child, superintendent of the Hinkley Locomotive Works, took an interest in the young lad with a passion for steam engines and he gave the boy a set of blueprints for a Hinkley locomotive saying, "Here you go lad, take these home and study them." Study them he did and, incredibly, he spent the next 8 years building a small working model from the blueprints. The achievement is tempered only slightly by the fact that he was able to make many of the parts at the Pratt & Whitney plant on weekends and holidays under the critical eye of his uncle Amos Whitney. Of course, without the use of the casting and machining equipment at his uncle's plant, his project would have been impossible, nevertheless, he made every single part himself."2 "Whitney got his early education at the local Boston public schools and later attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he completed the 2-year course offered by the School of Mechanical Engineering. After finishing his education at M.I.T., he spent a few years working part time for S. H. Roper where he performed various tasks of steam fitting and boiler making. After his wife, Ida, died in 1888 [1890 per Pierce6] he formed a partnership with a man named Joseph Crowther and they started a machine shop in Boston near Haymarket Square. Whitney operated the business as a sole proprietorship after his partner left and he was soon building steam launches and yachts. He contracted the hulls to local boat builders, but the overall designs were his own and he equipped them with Whitney designed engines. His reputation grew rapidly and soon he was receiving orders from Maine to Florida."2 "In 1888 he hired an apprentice named Nathanial Coolidge who eventually became his assistant, confidante and lifelong friend. By 1890 Whitney and Coolidge had built or fitted engines to 96 steamboats along the Eastern Seaboard. In 1890 they moved their shop to a permanent location at Mayo's Wharf in East Boston. The steam carriage bug bit Whitney when Sylvester Roper took him for a ride in an early 1885 model. He became interested when Roper asked him to machine two cylinders for an experimental steam bicycle. (Roper later died of a heart attack while road-testing this experimental vehicle.)"2 George, at one time, had applications on file for 300 patents and approximately half of them were approved.3 Among his inventions were a hub brake on bicycles, an automatic coal furnace stoker, a pressed asphalt brick for street pavement, and a bottle-capper said to have earned him $25,000 during Prohibition.3,4 He also created a device which, by closing one garage door, would shut the other. Another invention was a hay compressor.3 By the age of 35, "Whit", as his friends called him, had successfully manufactured the world's first steam-powered automobile. His uncle Amos Whitney, who was president of Pratt & Whitney in Hartford, followed his progress with great interest. Amos made a proposal to his board of directors that the firm begin producing steam automobiles based on the designs and patents of his nephew, but the board turned him down.2 He was able to obtain a patent for his automobile, but only after years of infringement legal battles with competitors, one of which resulted in the divorce of his 2nd wife, Annie. His patent was eventually sold. Throughout this period he continued to design and manufacture boilers and engines for the marine industry. In about 1900, he settled in Big Island Pond, New Hampshire. "His large boathouse, located on the edge of what is now known as the Whitney Shore, had a fully equipped machine shop. In that year he launched the Ida F on her maiden voyage from Chase's Grove. For 48 years she cruised the picturesque coves of Big Island Pond, the channels and the broad reach of the main lake loaded with happy campers and picnickers. She was 31 feet long with an 8-foot beam and she carried 25 passengers under her canopy."2 George became known throughout New England as the "Steam Man". At one time, there were eight boats on Lake Winnepesaukee with Whitney-designed engines. As late as 1956, he held master pilot's and chief engineer's licenses for operation of pleasure steamers on the New England coast. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest living graduate of M.I.T. in Boston.4 He died at the age of 101 on December 4, 1963 in Manchester, New Hampshire.2,6
1Newspaper article, Country Crier, undated
2Alfred E. Kayworth, Legends of the Pond, Stories of Big Island Pond, Atkinson, Derry and Hampstead (Boston: Branden Publishing Company, 2000), Chapter 10, pages 207-227. (Ida's death 1888; George's death Dec. 1, 1963)
3Gene Ray, Newspaper article, unknown publication, undated
4Dan O'Connell, Newspaper article, unknown publication, undated (circa 1963)
5Newspaper article, Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Lawrence, Mass., Fri. Dec. 6, 1963 ("died Wednesday")
6Frederick C. Pierce, The Descendants of John Whitney, Who Came from London, England to Watertown, Massachusetts in 1635 (Chicago: 1895), p651, Individual #8422x. (Birth June 10, 1868; Death of Ida 1890)
Thank you to JoAnn (Dickey) DeMarais, of Derry, New Hampshire for providing the material for this article. Russell Dickey, JoAnn's father, was a protege' of George Eli Whitney. In 1954 Russ bought George's machine shop and equipment. Most of the equipment has been sold, Russ advises, but he still has the garage and shop for repairing small engines. More information about Russ's relationship with George Eli can be found in Kayworth's Legends of the Pond pp. 5-10 and 221-226.
Additions or corrections should be sent to Jeanne (Whitney) Muse.
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