THE MAN WHO RIVALED EDISON
NUMBER OF INVENTIONS
By JAMES W. BECKMAN
This is a biographical sketch of a truly great man. It is the story of a genius who was content in keeping his light under a bushel.
It is the purpose of this booklet to re-kindle the spark of that light so that you and others who, directly or indirectly, have benefited by his efforts, will not forget.
It was my good fortune to have been his brother.
EDWARD M. APPLE.
Detroit, Michigan, March, 1941
Two Ohio boys became the holders of the world’s records for the number of inventions to their credit: Thomas A. Edison and Vincent G. Apple.
Edison was granted approximately 1,000 patents on his inventions in a lifetime of 84 years.
Vincent G. Apple, who died in his most productive period at the age of 58, had more than 350 patents issued in his name as inventor. Approximately 130 applications were pending in the patent office at the time of his death, and he was working, at the time, on 265 other inventions upon which his heirs and legal representatives could file applications for patents, bringing the total to 745. Had he patented all of his inventions, some of which have been worth millions to others, he could have had some 1,500 to his credit. In the year 1931, the year before his death, he had more patents issued to him than any other inventor.
Automobiles speed on the highways and airplanes fly through the air as a result of the ignition systems invented by Vincent G. Apple. In 1903 he built a magneto ignition system used by the Wright brothers in the plane in which they made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk in that year and gave man dominion over the air. Devices that the modern equipment on present automobiles were introduced by him as early as 1902, when in that year he invented what is now thought to be the first electric self-starter. Cylinders cast en bloc was his invention in 1905. Evidence that his unselfishness equaled his inventiveness lies in the fact that he did not attempt to patent either of those inventions.
Vincent G. Apple was born on a farm near Miamisburg, Ohio, January 26, 1874, and spent the early years of his life in Miamisburg. He was educated in the public schools and was graduated from a commercial school, but never went to college. His engineering and scientific knowledge was acquired through his own efforts as a student. His inventive genius was a gift.
In 1892, when only a boy of 18 years of age, he organized the Franklin Electric Company, with a capitalization of $100,000 to manufacture toy motors. The business succeeded and a few years later he organized the Dayton Electric and Manufacturing Company for the production of ignition equipment for stationary engines. In 1895 he had developed and built the first dynamo used for ignition on internal combustion engines, and in 1896 he built the first dynamo engine ignition system utilizing dry batteries. Thousands of those systems were sold and many are still in use. In 1896 he built the first dynamo-floating-storage-battery ignition system, the type that is in use today. In this last named system, wherein a storage battery is floated on the line, the battery tends to stabilize the voltage and makes the use of dry cells unnecessary. This equipment was first applied to engines in automobiles and motor boats. He originated the modern lighting and ignition systems now in use on automobiles, airplanes and motor boats.
At first sales were made chiefly to car owners direct. There were a few sales to factories on regular or special orders. The first manufacturer’s order came from Winton in 1901. Orders from Elmore, Autocar and Franklin followed shortly. The Elmore car used electric side and tail lights also—and advertised this equipment as standard, fully TEN years ahead of commercial automotive electric lighting.
Various devices to provide ignition were brought out by different inventors. In 1903 Vincent G. Apple designed a flywheel magneto, the first of its kind in the United States. It was not patented nor introduced to the public but was privately offered to Henry Ford. The cost price, however, was considered too high by Mr. Ford, but in 1908 Ford began to manufacture his own magnetos, using Apple’s designs, at a price presumably below the cost Apple had refused to cut. Years later when a former Ford employee instituted an infringement suit against Ford for using the flywheel magneto on Model T. Fords, Henry Ford and his staff went to Dayton, Ohio, to secure from Vincent Apple the blueprints of the model built years before by Mr. Apple. An original model, embodying the principle incorporated in the Ford flywheel magneto is now in Smithsonian Institution along with the model of other inventions of Apple.
Incidentally, this occasion offers an example of Apple’s extreme reticence and reluctance to appear in the limelight. Many would have welcomed the publicity of such a visit because of the advantage to them, but Apple refrained for the fact that he could be one of the world’s two most prolific inventors yet die unknown, except to those who knew the inside history of such electrical devices and the automobile.
In 1905 he supplied Stoddard-Dayton with a battery timer and distributor, embodying present usage for hand as well as automatic spark control.
Of the many American magnetos brought out during this early period, most were short-lived. The one used by Ford, built after Apple’s design, was the most noteworthy success.
Of the 462 models of automobiles exhibited in the New York show in 1911, 430 used high–tension magnetos, 13 low-tension magnetos, and 19 “some special form of equipment intended to compete with magnetos,” to quote from the Automobile Trade Journal of December 1, 1924.
At this time just when the magneto seemed to be irrevocably established, electric horns had slowly—if not noiselessly—come into favor. The user of an electric horn needed a storage battery, and the question arose if a storage battery was to be a part of the regular equipment of every car, why carry a magneto at all?
Since the magneto was used only as a reserve to the battery itself, why not discard the magneto and put its weight (or more if necessary) into a generator which would always keep the battery charged?
Thus did the dynamo and battery-floating-on-the-line-ignition system, invented by Apple in 1897, come back fourteen years later—this time to stay. The invention by Apple of certain regulating devices, including the automatic cut-out, which prevented excessive overcharging, was the principal reason for the success of the “floating-on-the-line” system.
From 1910 to 1915 the electrical history of the automobile was largely that of generator development.
Few inventors who tackled the problem of ignition stopped there. Electric lighting suggested itself from the start. It was mainly a question of keeping voltages within bounds. With a storage battery to absorb the excess this did not appear difficult, although as is so often the case, appearances were deceiving.
In characteristic fashion, Vincent G. Apple was first with a practical lighting system. He pioneered automobile lighting by introducing tungsten bulbs to automobile lamps for the first time in 1907, when he succeeded in persuading the General Electric Company to make a pair of 6-volt 40 C. P. tungsten bulbs for him. These bulbs were used with such success that the following year General Electric began advertising tungsten bulbs for headlights.
“As between the gas headlight and the tungsten filament lamp,” Apple is quoted in the Automobile Trade Journal for December 1, 1924, describing the first illuminometer test, “a given type could be read at approximately double the distance with the tungsten lamp; and I will remember how everyone present agreed that meant ‘Goodbye, gas lighting!’ but none of us realized how many years it would take to do it.”
Not only did these electric headlights far surpass acetylene lamps in brilliancy, they did not flicker and they were handier in every way. By making the delicate tungsten filaments thicker, they were tough enough for the low voltages required.
In order to develop electric lighting for automobiles Apple left the Dayton Electric and Manufacturing Company and in 1908 organized the Apple Electric Company, selling its products under the trade name “Aplco.” In the next two years hundreds of theses lighting outfits were sold. A miniature belt-driven dynamo, with wound field, a governor and slipping clutch and storage battery “floated-on-the-line,” was used. They were purchased by individual car owners, as no car manufacturer was willing to “put an electric lighting plant on a car.” Automobile manufacturers were striving for simplification, and they resented these attempts to force their hands.
“You are crazy to think we would put all that stuff on our cars!” one manufacturer indignantly exclaimed to Apple. However, years later the manufacturer admitted to Apple that the term was more suited to himself. In 1909 Apple succeeded in inducing the Speedwell Motor Car Company to provide a positive drive for a dynamo with their Continental engines, and to furnish the dynamo as optional equipment. In these years he worked with the idea of automatically varying the field strength by introducing a resistance.
Constant armature speed, as a means of limiting the charging rate, was soon discarded by Apple, who recognized the wastefulness of losing in heat and friction the entire difference between the driving and driven sides of a slipping clutch.
An article in the Automobile Trade Journal for December 1, 1924, says of this development:
“Looking first at generator regulation, we find the Aplco dynamo, in 1912, using a carbon-pile resistance in the shunt field circuit, compressed by springs and released by the pull of a magnet in the charging circuit. Vesta used permanent field magnets, and a centrifugal governor controlling a rheostat in the charging circuit. Delco used a hand regulator. Auto-Lite had a permanent magnet field and slipping clutch drive. This was the first appearance of both Auto-Lite and Delco. Ward Leonard’s vibrating regulator first appeared this year.”
In 1911 Apple had experimented with third-brush regulation and in 1912 Leece-Neville applied the principle commercially.
In 1906 he built the first ball-bearing dynamo to be positively geared to variable speed automotive engines. In the same year he designed the carbon regulator for this dynamo.
In 1909 he designed a geared-type electric starter for automotive engines and endeavored to sell such devices to the Stoddard-Dayton and Speedwell companies of Dayton, Oho.
In 1911 he developed the first third-brush regulation for automotive generators.
On October 1, 1911, he began delivery of ignition, lighting and starting systems to the Interstate Automobile Company.
In 1914 he developed and manufactured the first starting system for the Ford automobile, using the silent chain drive. In the same year he developed the present method of bar winding starting motor armatures.
In 1916 he developed the direct-connected Ford starting system, known as the front end starter. From this time until his death in 1932 he developed and perfected a number of improved methods for winding and insulating dynamo-electric machines, on which scores of patents have been issued and many more are pending. Scores of his other inventions remain to be patented.
Although he successfully evaded the news gatherers and the writers who fill the news and automobile pages, Apple and his pioneering and inventions received volumes of attention in the trade and technical papers of his time, and the history of the development of electrical equipment for automobiles is very much the story of the achievements of Vincent G. Apple.
So prolific of inventions was he that he never even took time to patent hundreds upon hundreds of them. Had he done so, he would have exceeded Edison’s record of approximately 1,000 patents by some 500, and this in a lifetime of 58 years as compared with Edison’s 84 years.
Apple was as indifferent to the exploitation of his inventions as he was to publicity. His returns were small compared with the vast fortunes that his inventions helped to make for others. It is not always well to draw moral conclusions, but the case of Vincent G. Apple forces recognition of the fact that the profit motive is not the motive of scientific achievement, mechanical advancement and social progress. No, it is the desire to do—the fact that true happiness is found in one’s work—that drives creative men to labor for improvement and betterment of things that their fellowmen use and enjoy.
As the story of Vincent G. Apple is unique in invention and the practical development of his inventions, so is the business which he left—The Vincent G. Apple Laboratories at Dayton. He was sole proprietor and its guiding light. One of the world’s two most prolific inventors, the last sixteen years of his life were devoted to the business of creating and commercially developing patentable ideas. In this laboratory, inventions were conceived and created, reduced to practice, patented and placed on the market. With few exceptions, it was his consistent practice in recent years to retain the legal titles to the patents and develop them commercially by issuing licenses for their use. So far as known, there has never been another business exactly like the one conducted by him, and which is now being continued by his heirs. The closest approximation was the laboratory of Thomas A. Edison. In many ways he resembled Edison: in his insatiable thirst for knowledge: in his application to the work of solving the puzzles of mechanical and electrical development, and in temperament. Apple was well acquainted with Edison, and often visited him. When Vincent Apple became a member of one of the great engineering societies of the country, Thomas A. Edison was his sponsor.
A part, at least, of the history of Vincent G. Apple’s pioneering genius is recorded for posterity in the United States Patent Office and in the devices he originated, some of which are now arranged in a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution, the United States nation museum at Washington, D. C. As a man of works instead of words, he will be known to posterity.