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A Sense of Boating History

Exploring how our modern boats and engines came to be.

March 13, 2013
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History was not one of my favorite subjects back in grade school days. Memorizing important dates and their significance besides 1492 and 1776 was never my strong suit However, now that I’m older and perhaps a bit wiser; I find that the history behind the powerboat and marine powerplant business is fascinating. Being a card-carrying gear-head makes me want to learn more about how mechanical things evolved over the years and especially how they were first conceived and developed. Early in the 1900’s came the inventions that affect all of our lives; airplanes, radio, outboards, automobiles, etc.

Did you know that Ole Evinrude did not invent the outboard motor and he was not the first to produce and sell a large number of engines? A picture from 1896 shows an engine on the back of a boat that looks very similar to modern outboard motor designs. It was a young attorney named Cameron Waterman from Detroit who is considered the father of the first successful outboard motor manufacturing company. Are you aware that the Johnson brothers built airplanes, twin-cylinder bicycle motors, and V-12 engines before they ventured into the outboard business? These are just a few tidbits of nautical history that may not be well known.

1896 American Motor Company

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Early Rowboat Motor

Now that another season is approaching and if you have an interest in how things were back then in the early years of recreational boating, plan an adventure to attend one of the many antique boat shows or old motor events that are held around the country. If that is not convenient perhaps a nautical museum is somewhere near your location. Just “Googlingantique boat shows, antique outboard motor shows, or nautical museums will result in pages and pages of events. All you have to do is pick one or more that interest you.

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If you are into classic wood boats with varnish that looks like it a 2″ deep, there are events that feature the pre-WW II Hacker Craft, Gar Wood, Chris-Craft and other hand built boats from days gone by. One I attend often is held this year on March 23 in Taveres, Florida called Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival. It has in the past had 100 year old race boats, aircraft engine powered race-crafts from the ’20s, old outboards, nautical flea market – much to make an old boater drool. ( ).

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The Northeast part of the country is also famous for classic and antique events along with nautical museums. Clayton, New York hosts several boat festivals and is home of the famous Antique Boat Museum. ( ) Even though they are billed as boat shows, there are antique and classic engines displayed also.

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Ralph Clayton’s Traveling Outboard Collection

For those just interested in old motors, both inboard and outboard, check into various events where you can see 100 year old “rowboat motors” still operational and propelling boats around a lake. The Antique Outboard Club ( ) has various chapters around the country that host both in-water and static displays of outboards that you may remember from your youth or that which your father or grandfather may have operated. Just watching the starting procedures and listening to putt-putting sound of those antique smoky power-plants make you appreciate how far engines have evolved.

Chris S. with his triple 100 year old Evinrudes – – used with permission

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Be adventuresome, plan an outing, and soak up some history this season. I will bet that you will enjoy it and will leave with a greater appreciation and understanding of what the boating pioneers experienced so many years ago.

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