Spring 1998

People of the Century

Putting America Behind the Wheel

 Elwood Haynes in his historic automobile in Indiana at the site of his
 first test drive.

A s the heyday of the great railroads was waning, the age of the automobile was beginning. Several WPI alumni played pivotal roles in the development and success of the early automotive industry. Perhaps the most famous is Elwood Haynes, Class of 1881, who built one of the first gasoline-powered cars in America and took it for a brief drive near Kokomo, Ind., on July 4, 1894. The car is now in the Smithsonian Institution, and a monument commemorates Kokomo as "the birthplace of a new era of transportation."

Haynes turned his invention into a successful business, the Haynes Motor Co. He also founded Haynes Stellite Co., which commercialized seminal discoveries he made in the field of metallurgy. As a student at WPI, he had become discouraged when a steel razor blade he made rusted. Later, he became one of the first researchers to develop and manufacture stainless steel. He also invented a number of alloys of chromium, cobalt, tungsten and molybdenum. One, called Stellite, was much harder than many steels and proved an ideal material for cutting tools.

Windsor T. White, Class of 1890, built another early car. White formed the White Motor Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early part of the century and made steam cars until switching over to gasoline-powered cars and trucks in 1909. He was also president of White Sewing Machine Co. For a time, he served as president of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers and was chairman of the Motor Truck Committee of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce.

Critical developments in manufacturing technology pioneered by WPI graduates contributed immeasurably to the growth of the automotive industry. Victor E. Edwards, Class of 1883, as chief engineer for Morgan Construction Co. in Worcester, is credited with a number of innovations in rolling mill technology that revolutionized steel making. Perhaps his best-known invention was the flying shear that cut steel billets while they were in motion, making possible the continuous manufacture of steel. James N. Heald, Class of 1884, the third generation of his family to run Heald Machine Co., developed the internal grinding machine that paved the way for the mass production of internal combustion engines.

Until it closed in the mid-1960s, the Studebaker Company made innovative, stylish automobiles. For nearly two decades, until his death in an automobile accident in 1952, Stanwood W. Sparrow '11 directed the company's research and development operation. Sparrow served for a time as president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Studebaker was just one of many automobile companies that sent new cars to WPI to be tested in the laboratory of David L. Gallup, Class of 1901, professor of mechanical and gas engineering. Gallup was a pioneer in the study of the mechanical performance of automobiles. Using equipment largely of his own design, he built a testing laboratory in the basement of Stratton Hall, where he became the first researcher to demonstrate that the relationship between vehicle weight and power is an important consideration in automotive design. He left WPI in 1917 and later became vice president and director of engineering at Bendix Brake Co.

WPI graduates were responsible for innovations in a number of automotive components. Selden T. Williams '16 invented the "snap-in" valve that is now used in many tubeless tires. Frederick A. Farrar '31, founder of a Keene, N.H., company that repaired electric motors, is credited with developing the first dimmer for car headlights. As an engineer with the Haynes Motor Co., Charles Hollerith '17, son of the inventor of the IBM punch card, was responsible for many developments in automotive mufflers.

During his 43-year career at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Russell G. Whittemore '27 was instrumental in the development of laminated safety glass, an invention that led to modern laminated glass windshields. During World War II, he was a consultant to the military on the glass needs of the aircraft industry and was consulted by Howard Hughes during the construction of his famous flying boat, Spruce Goose. After the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Whittemore advised the government on the safety glass requirements of a new presidential limousine.

Burton W. Marsh '20 wasn't interested in cars, themselves, but in the safety of the people who drove them and who shared the streets with them. Marsh was the first full-time traffic engineer in the United States. Having achieved success as a city planner, he attracted the interest of the mayor of Pittsburgh, who appointed him head of the city's new Bureau of Traffic Relief in 1924. He was so successful, Philadelphia lured him away to tackle its traffic mess in 1930.

Three years later, Marsh became director of traffic engineering and safety for the American Automobile Association, where he pioneered an emphasis on pedestrian safety that contributed to a major reduction in pedestrian fatalities between 1937 to 1957 - despite a jump in the number of cars on the road. He also helped establish the AAA's school safety patrol and assisted in setting up driver education programs in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. From 1967 to 1970, he was executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an organization he helped found. In 1970 the ITE created the Burton W. Marsh Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor.

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