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Paul Holley
By Paul Holley

Exactly who is the Father of the Automobile? That may be subject to debate, but Racine will claim the Rev. John Wesley Carhart.

Carhart (1834-1914) spent just three years in Racine as pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, but his inventiveness had a lasting impact. Well before Carhart’s 1871 arrival in Racine, the New York state native had an interest in mechanics and invention. In the 1860s, he’d received patents for steam engine valves and a needle protector for sewing machines. Carhart also built and operated a miniature steam yacht that cruised on the Hudson River and other New York waters.

But Carhart’s biggest invention accomplishment made its appearance just south of downtown Racine in September 1873. It was a strange-looking, noisy, steam-powered carriage nicknamed the Spark. Oh, and it scared the living daylights out of horses!

Gadgets and Geeks - wk 10- photo 2
The Spark – a steam-powered vehicle invented by the Rev. John Wesley Carhart in 1873. (Image courtesy of Racine Heritage Museum archives)

Carhart constructed the Spark in his spare time in a barn on Wisconsin Avenue, between Tenth and Eleventh streets, that was owned by George Slauson, a member of his church. The vehicle was powered by a pair of 5-horsepower engines (one for each rear wheel). The custom-made parts included a boiler fabricated by a New York fire engine manufacturer, engines and components made in a J.I. Case machine shop and wheels and frame produced by a Racine carriage maker.

A lever was used to steer the Spark and a toe rail served as a brake. Total weight was approximately 600 lbs. The vehicle reportedly traveled at a speed of 4 miles per hour and was equipped with a piercing steam whistle.

Racine’s horse-and-buggy population wasn’t impressed. Hostile might be a better word. Within a month, the Racine City Council approved an ordinance that prohibited the operation of steam-powered vehicles on city streets.

Carhart, however, declared his experimental machine a success because it proved that a lightweight steam-powered road vehicle was possible. Within two years, the Wisconsin State Legislature – inspired by Carhart’s invention – sponsored a contest offering a $10,000 prize for a machine that could successfully complete a trip of 200 miles on ordinary roads.

Carhart left Racine in 1874 to pastor another congregation in Oshkosh. He later left the ministry and graduated from medical school in Chicago. Carhart then moved to Texas where he practiced medicine until his death in 1914.

He was also a prolific writer who produced religious articles for newspapers and magazines and papers for medical journals. He also published several books.

Carhart was ultimately recognized for his inventiveness some 30 years after the Spark first rolled through the streets of Racine. In 1903, “Horseless Age” magazine named him “Father of the Automobile.” In 1905, he was invited to the International Automobile Exposition in Paris where he was also hailed as the “Father of the Automobile and given a cash award. Carhart died in San Antonio, Texas, in 1914 at age 80.

Alas, the Spark itself wasn’t long for this world. It was dismantled within two years of its debut. The boiler was re-purposed to power a printing press operated by Carhart’s sons.

For the record, several inventors and tinkerers are credited with various forerunners of the automobile during the 18th and 19th centuries. French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot introduced the first steam-powered vehicle capable of carrying people in 1769. It was German design engineer Karl Benz who got credit for inventing the first practical automobile. He was awarded a patent in Germany in 1886 and started selling his gasoline-powered “Benz Patented Motorwagen” in 1888.

But, we in Racine will claim Carhart and the Spark.

(Material for this story came from “Invention City: The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” by John Buenker (Racine Heritage Museum, 1998); “John Wesley Carhart: Preacher, Author, Inventor, Physician and Father of the Automobile” by George D. Fennell (2016); Racine Heritage Museum archives and Wikipedia.)

(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because the Racine County Eye will hold Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night from 6 to 8 p.m. July 17 at the Brickhouse, 316 Main St. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)

Paul Holley is retired from careers in journalism, public relations and marketing but not from life. These days, he pretty much writes about what he feels like writing. You may contact him directly at:...