Saturday, January 28, 2012

Walter Macomber: The Macomber Rotary Engine

While he was employed by the Randsburg Water Company, Walter Macomber invented a rotary engine. He got the first patent on it in 1909, and kept refining it and re-patenting the results.

Back then, rotary engines were regarded as a possible solution to the problem of aerial vibration. The above photo shows pioneer aviator Charlie Walsh aloft in a plane powered by the Macomber Rotary in May 1911 (Dominguez Field near Los Angeles). His passenger is a Los Angeles Herald reporter.

The Macomber Rotary also was used in numerous prototype cars between 1914-1918. (Above: Walter Macomber in the driver's seat with an unidentified passenger, San Diego, 1915.) A factory in Sandusky, Ohio was primed to mass produce Eagle-Macomber motor cars. Macomber even drove an Eagle-Macomber car from Los Angeles to Chicago in Nov.-Dec. 1916 to prove the engine's worthiness.

Above: promotional material, c. 1915. Despite the successful road trip, the engine had several flaws that could not be resolved. By 1918 the factory had closed down. No one knows how many Eagle-Macomber cycle cars and touring cars were actually produced, but the number is likely to be 50 or less.

This is the last installment, for now, of the Macomber story. I am always on the lookout for more information on the subject. If anyone out there knows the whereabouts of an actual car or engine, please contact me!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Walter Macomber: The Mining Years

Through his wife’s uncles, W. W. Godsmark and Alfred Godsmark, Walter Macomber took an opportunity to move to California in 1899, where he resided in Johannesburg and worked as an engineer for the Croesus Mining Company, pictured above (Photo: Rand Desert Museum).

Alfred and W. W. Godsmark hailed from Bedford, Michigan. They were active investors in gold mines and other businesses in the Rand and Panamint mining districts in the late 1800s and early 1900s. W. W. Godsmark was a director of the Croesus Mining Company and part owner of the Johannesburg Hotel, pictured below (Photo: Rand Desert Museum).

In September 1898, the Godsmark brothers led a group of Michigan investors who purchased the Never Give Up mine from Henry Ratcliff. By January 1900, the Ratcliff Consolidated Gold Mines, Ltd. turned out $15,000 a month in gold and was “the new boss mine of the Panamints.” (Source: Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion by Richard E. Lingenfelter).

After two years with Croesus Mining Company, Walter Macomber moved to the Ratcliff Mine, where he was superintendent of the mechanical department. Next he worked for the Randsburg Water Company. According to the Press Reference Library article on Macomber:

It was while here that his ability in mechanics became manifest. Three pumping plants were operated by gas engines, the wells being some three miles apart, and each formerly necessitated an engineer. By an invention of his own, Mr. Macomber operated the three by telephone. He could sit in his office and instantly tell how any plant was working, and stop it if not working properly.

During those years, Macomber invented an internal combustion rotary engine. He first obtained a patent on this invention, which became known as the Macomber Rotary, in 1909. He continued to refine and reapply for patents, as shown by the diagram above for a patent in 1912.

Macomber moved to Los Angeles in 1909 to pursue business opportunities for the engine. The Los Angeles Herald reported on December 2, 1909, under New Incorporations: “Macomber Rotary Engine Company, capital $1,000,000; directors, W. G. Macomber, George A. Coffey, A. M. Scott, L. A. Montandon, Los Angeles; C. G. Illingworth, Randsburg.” Macomber also served as president and general manager.

The company’s offices were initially at 421-2-3 I. W. Hellman Bldg. in Los Angeles, and the factory or “works” was at 235-7 Aliso St.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Walter Macomber Biography

I've been spending a fair amount of time lately compiling a biography of my great-grandfather, Walter Glenn Macomber, inventor of the Macomber rotary engine. This is a research project I've pursued off and on over the past couple of years. The Internet and various museums/libraries in California, Michigan, and Ohio have been very helpful in terms of gathering information. At this point, I've taken what I have so far and compiled it into a narrative. Thought I'd post a few excerpts on the blog.

Above: Zebedee Macomber, inventor of the "self-propeller" threshing machine, and his sons in Bedford, Michigan. Walter Macomber is at the far left.

Walter Glenn Macomber was born at Battle Creek, Michigan on June 30, 1871, the son of Zebedee Macomber and Clara (Wright) Macomber. He was educated in the public schools of Bedford, Michigan and by private tutors. He married Mabel Godsmark on June 14, 1894 at Bedford, and the couple had one daughter, Ina L. Macomber, born April 23, 1895.

The following account of his early life comes from the Press Reference Library, Southwest Edition, 1912 (“Being the portraits and biographies of progressive men of the Southwest,” published by the Los Angeles Examiner):

Macomber comes by his inventive genius naturally, his father before him having been a practical engineer who contributed largely to the origination of the first traction engine, a mechanical vehicle that has practically revolutionized agricultural methods, and today is one of the most important tools used in farming.

Mr. Macomber's bent displayed itself when he was a boy going to school, and he spent most of the hours when he was not studying in the workshop of his father. These were the hours that other boys usually spent at play, but the young inventor got more pleasure from "making things" than he did from games. At 12 years of age he was as well versed in mechanics and mechanical appliances as numerous men who follow those vocations in life.

His first invention came when he was 14 years of age. At that time he constructed a miniature steam engine, complete in every detail. He used an ordinary teakettle for a boiler, and even with the meager power developed from this was able to get great speed out of his invention. Within a year after his initial production he had built, with his own hands and without any assistance, a self-inking printing press, running with remarkable accuracy. This accomplishment surprised and delighted the boy and his father, and the latter then taught his son all he could about the mechanical arts.

When he was 21 years of age he started in the photographic business at Augusta, a suburb of Battle Creek, Michigan, and remained in it three years. Although this line of work was attractive to Mr. Macomber, he fully realized that his real life work lay within the mechanical arts… Between the ages of 29 and 33 years he studied mechanical engineering privately and qualified in that profession.

To be continued...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Loie Fuller

We discovered Loie Fuller on the Netflix DVD "Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies." This documentary is a fascinating look at how these artists were influenced by early cinema. The DVD's extras included footage of Fuller, an American dancer who became a worldwide sensation for her solo original dances. She manipulated flowing fabric around her body to sublime effect. Her rise to fame culminated in France, where she lived for the second half of her life, and where she was beloved by the artists and writers of the day.

The above photos come from Fuller's autobiography, "15 Years of a Dancer's Life, With Some Account of Her Distinguished Friends," published in 1913 with an introduction by Anatole France. (The original French version was published in 1908.) You can find her autobiography online here. Anatole France says, "I had seen her only as she had been seen by multitudes from every corner of the globe, on the stage, waving her draperies in the first light, or transformed into a great resplendent lily, revealing to us a new and dignified type of beauty. I had the honor of being presented to her at a luncheon of the tour du monde at Boulogne. I saw an American lady with small features, with blue eyes, like water in which a pale sky is reflected, rather plump, quiet, smiling, refined...the expression of her eyes...changes like the landscapes that are disclosed along a beautiful highway."

Above: Portrait of Loie Fuller by Frederick Glasier, 1902. Fuller became a great friend of Queen Marie of Romania and, through a connection at the U.S. embassy in Paris, helped arrange a U.S. loan for Romania during World War I. Together, Queen Marie, Loie Fuller, and American businessman Sam Hill founded the Maryhill Museum of Art in rural Washington State. This museum has a permanent exhibition about Fuller's life and career.

Above: Fuller in her garden at Passy in France. I had never heard of this extraordinary dancer and was glad for the chance to learn about her. A woman who started out with no special connections or prospects, she lived her own fairytale through sheer determination.