Notable Norwegians: Ole Evinrude

David Moe

Ole Evinrude was born on a farm outside Oslo, Norway, in 1877. When he was five years old, his family emigrated to America, and he remembered spending most of the trip in the ship’s engine room. The family settled in Cambridge, Wisconsin, and Ole dropped out of school at an early age because it was boring. He preferred working with tools and machinery.

He went to work as an apprentice and laborer in factories all over the Midwest, allowing himself one indulgence, a subscription to a mechanics magazine. In the 1890s, he read about the internal combustion engine being used in Germany to power “horseless carriages.” Returning to Wisconsin in 1900, he opened a pattern-making shop and in his spare time began to build his own “horseless carriages.” The manager of his small office was a young neighbor, Bess Cary, to whom he became engaged in 1906. During a picnic on an island that summer, Ole made a five-mile round trip in a rowboat to get Bess some ice cream. It was then he realized that boats could also benefit from a gasoline engine.

The next summer, he tested his first outboard motor, a 1 ½-horsepower, 62-pound iron engine that Bess said looked like a coffee grinder. In 1911, he got a patent (# 1,001,260—Marine Propulsion System) and formed a partnership with a tugboat owner named Chris Meyer. In 1914, Ole sold his business interest to Meyer and promised not to work in the field for five years, so he took his wife and son and toured the U.S. When his five years were up, he returned to Milwaukee and invented a twin-cylinder, 3-horsepower, 48-pound aluminum outboard motor and tried to sell it to Meyer, who refused. Evinrude then started a new company and went into competition with his first company, but a third was also formed in 1922, called Johnson Motors.

In 1929, a three-way merger was formed, creating Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC). On October 28, 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began, but Ole never lost hope. He went on to develop the electric starter, the folding shaft, the 40-horsepower motor, and the “Evinrude Lawn-Boy” or power lawnmower in 1932. In 1933 Bess died, and he died the following year. His son, Ralph, who had left college in 1927 to join the company, took over as President of OMC. OMC remains the undisputed leader of the outboard motor industry today. Their motors are used by recreational boaters, fishermen, and even the military. His hard work, kind heart, and perseverance proved to be the ingredients needed to develop a successful corporation.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.