Ole Evinrude (1877-1934), inventor and entrepreneur, founded an industry and managed a thriving company while remaining one of America's most honest and generous businessmen.
Evinrude was born on a farm outside of Christiana, Norway. One of his earliest memories was his family's emigration to America when he was five (1882). He spent almost the entire trip in the ship's engine room. The family settled in Cambridge, Wisconsin, where young Evinrude abandoned grade school early because it was too easy.
Evinrude much preferred working with farm tools and machinery, first around his father's property, then as an apprentice and laborer in factories all over the Midwest, including Chicago and Pittsburgh. A tireless worker, Evinrude allowed himself only one indulgence: a subscription to a mechanics magazine. In the 1890s, Evinrude first read about the internal combustion engine, already being used in Germany experimentally to power the "horseless carriage."
Returning to Wisconsin in 1900 at the age of 23, Evinrude opened a pattern-making shop. In his spare time, he built his own horseless carriages, which he road tested in town – much to the astonishment and dismay of his fellow Milwaukeeans. Evinrude soon won fame as an engineer and eccentric but found success more elusive.
The manager of Evinrude's modest office was a young neighbor named Bess Cary. In 1906, he and she were engaged. During a picnic on an island that summer, Evinrude made a 5-mile roundtrip by rowboat in 90-degree heat to fetch his beloved some ice cream. Though he was a powerful man and far from lazy, Evinrude realized en route that an automobile was not the only vehicle that could benefit from a gasoline engine.
The next summer saw the first field tests of Evinrude's outboard motor, a 1 1/2 horsepower, 62-pound iron engine that his new wife said looked like a coffee grinder. Despite this initial skepticism, Bess became Evinrude's ad executive, and over the next two years, thanks to Mr. Evinrude's refinements and Mrs. Evinrude's publicity ("Don't Row! Throw the Oars Away!"), the motors were a great success.
Although other inventors had experimented with the outboard motor as early as 1896, Evinrude's was the first commercial success. In 1911, he earned a patent (#1,001,260; "Marine Propulsion System") and formed a business partnership with a tugboat magnate named Chris Meyer. The Evinrudes literally wore themselves out producing and promoting their engines, and in 1914 were forced to sell their business interests to Meyer in order to take a vacation. Having promised not to work in the field for five years, Evinrude toured the U.S. instead, with his wife and their young son, Ralph.
When the five years were up, the Evinrudes returned to Milwaukee. Evinrude, who had not been idle, thought it only fair to offer Meyer his revolutionary new invention: a twin-cylinder, 3-horsepower, 48-pound, aluminum outboard motor. Meyer declined, which forced Evinrude's new "Elto" Company into competition with the first company he had founded. For ten years, they jockeyed for position, as a third contender, Johnson Motors (est. 1922), a specialist in inboard motors and speedboats, took the lead in the industry.
Evinrude never stopped improving his motors, and his company's market share increased. In 1929, by a three-way merger that formed Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), Evinrude reacquired his first company. Later that year, on October 28th, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression began. Evinrude's company survived only from sale to sale; but even in these hard times, Ole Evinrude never lost his optimism and generosity. Like a real-life George Bailey, he would shyly slip friends and employees cash to help them through hard times.
Meanwhile, Evinrude and his staff had developed more industry firsts: the electric starter, the folding shaft, and the 40-horsepower "Big Four." In fact, OMC began to expand, producing, for example, "Evinrude Lawn-Boy" power lawnmowers (1932).
In 1933, Bess Evinrude died. Her husband was crushed and died himself the next year. His son Ralph, who had left college to join the company in 1927, took over as President of OMC. He oversaw OMC's acquisition of Johnson Motors in 1935 and restructured the corporation based on the "consolidated competition" of its divisions (just as Chevrolet, Buick, and Oldsmobile compete). OMC remains the undisputed leader of the outboard motor industry today.
Thus, Ole Evinrude's legacy survives in the outboard motors used by recreational boaters, fishermen, and even the military (from World War II to Desert Storm). Evinrude won many awards for his work, but even more importantly, his career proves that hard work and a kind heart need not be incompatible with success.