The following article appeared in the Dayton Business Journal, November 1, 1996
©1996. Dayton Business Journal. All Rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
Few untouched by Custer's work
by Curt Dalton
The first of Levitt Luzern Custer's many inventions was the Custer Bubble Statoscope. Its purpose: register the rise and fall of an aircraft. Since it was without moving parts and was much sturdier than models being used at the time, Custer was awarded a patent in 1912 at the age of 24. This invention was to be used in balloons, for which he had a passion. Custer was involved in the now-famous flight when he and a group of men from the Dayton Journal flew in a balloon called Hoosier, taking with them a small printing press. While flying, they printed three "sky editions" of the Journal. It was the only newspaper ever printed in the air.
As aviation grew, so did the popularity of Custer's Statoscope. The first models were sent to the Army. After testing proved the value of the device, the Navy began to order the Statoscope.
Custer had been working in a lab that was housed in an old barn at his home. In 1916, he decided to start his own company and had a four-story brick building constructed on Franklin Street, across from Chaminade High School. On the fourth floor, he built the first indoor miniature golf course. The second floor became an oceanarium, with more than 100 tanks filled with tropical fish. In later years, a large arrow was painted on the roof of the factory, which helped guide pilots to McCook's Field.
About 1925, the Custer Park Car came into being. Built as an amusement ride, the car was battery-operated and could be used on any track. It was popular with amusement park operators since any vacant lot could become a Custer Car Speedway. Custer's next success was the Custer "C" Cycle, a small, paddlewheel-propelled watercraft. It worked on the same principle as a bicycle, with the pedals turning the paddlewheel in back. It turned out to be a popular ride at amusement parks.
Toward the end of 1930, Custer patented one of his greatest inventions, the Custer Car. Unlike the Custer Park Car, this auto was not meant for amusement parks. The Custer Car was a three-wheel motor vehicle with a small turning radius. Available with a gasoline motor or battery-operated, the car came with an unusual type of transmission: The driver moved the steering handle forward or backward, and the car would move in that direction. The electric model was designed to be used by invalids as a sort of self-propelled wheelchair. It would travel 10 to 15 miles before it needed recharging and was quiet compared with its gasoline equivalent. This led to motorized sightseeing cars that were used during the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
In 1940, the company moved to Linden Avenue. The next year the war had started. Custer then invented the Custer Utility Truck. Electrically powered, it was especially needed to help haul flammable material.
One of his final inventions was the Two Passenger Buckboard Motor Vehicle. Patented in 1958, it was equipped with an electric or gasoline motor, with the parts sitting on a series of seven wooden slats, thus the buckboard title. Designed for use outdoors, it was used by former President Dwight Eisenhower's son, David, and it was said that Emperor Haile Sealssie of Ethiopia used one to drive around his palace grounds.
Custer Specialty Co.'s final location was 139 Bradford St. Custer was still president of the company when he died Aug. 30, 1962, at age 74. The company remained in business with his wife, Gladys, at the helm until Sept. 11, 1965. That's when a fire gutted the building and all its contents, causing $100,000 in damage. It was believed that children started a fire in a vacant barn behind the company, which later spread to destroy Custer's drawings, models and personal notes.
An interesting footnote about one invention: Gilbert Mannino, writing a thesis for a history class at the University of Dayton in 1965, interviewed Gladys Custer. She told him that her husband believed that corporal punishment had a place in the school system and offered to build the Dayton Board of Education a "whipping machine." The board did not seem enthused, and the device never made it off the drawing board.