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The Birth of Motorboating

Adding a motor to a boat is said to have started in the late 1700s when Scottish inventor James Watt, often erroneously credited with the invention of the steam engine, placed one such engine in a boat in Birmingham, England.

Many steam-powered boats followed, some using a screw-type propeller to create motion as Watt did but most utilizing paddlewheels.

Except for recent developments in battery-electric power, pleasure boating has relied upon the internal combustion engine (ICE) as the source of power. There are many interesting iterations of the ICE and we will ignore some of them such as the gas turbine engine and rocket engines as their contribution to the sport, although most fascinating indeed, has been minimal.

The development of the ICE came bit by bit starting in the late 1700s. French engineers are credited with installing a prototype of their ICE in a boat around 1800-1810. There is little information available about that boat, the engine, or its inventors. Aside from an American patent for a turpentine-fueled ICE in 1826 which never went into production, it seems there was little other reported progress during the balance of that century.

Then in 1886, German inventors Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach installed their one-cylinder, petroleum-derivative powered ICE into an open double-ender skiff-type boat on a lake near Stuttgart. This roughly half-litre displacement engine weighed almost 60 kilograms (roughly 133 lbs) and developed a little over one horsepower at around 700 RPM.

The boat, named Rems, had been commissioned from the German shipyard of Friedrich Lursson, a yard that would eventually become today’s Lursson Yachts. Rems would be remembered and credited as the first motorboat, even if indeed it had not exactly been the first.

1886 Lurssen Yachts 'Rems'
The 1886 Lurssen Yachts 'Rems'

It seems that the first sizeable production of motorboats was by Priestman Brothers of England which tested its first ICE-powered boat in 1888. Priestman IC engines utilized kerosene and a high-voltage spark-type ignition system patented by Karl Benz in 1888. Many of Priestman’s boats were used commercially to move goods on England’s canal system.

Frederick Lanchester of England had by 1897 developed a new ICE design with an innovative wick-fed carburetor utilizing benzene in a boat with a reversible propeller. This engine received much praise as being “high-revving” while attaining the unimaginable peak of 800 RPM. Many Lanchester boats were used as ferries on the Thames River and elsewhere.

Both pleasure and commercial motorboating was growing exponentially into the turn of the 20th century, both in Europe and America. And of course, where there are motors, there are those wanting to race and claim victory. In 1903, the Marine Motor Association was started in England, followed months later in the United States by the American Power Boat Association (APBA), both with the objective to create rules for boat racing by delineating classes of boats and engines.

Also in 1903, Mr. Alfred Harmsworth donated the Harmsworth Cup for international powerboat competition. There were few rules, but the boat and engine had to be designed and built in the country being represented. The first race for the Harmsworth Cup was won by the 40-foot Napier I, designed and built as a race boat by Napier and Company of England and driven by Dorothy Levitt. The hull was steel and the four-cylinder Napier engine developed 66 horsepower -- providing a top speed of 21 mph, thus setting the world’s first speed record.

One year later, in 1904, APBA created The Challenge Cup which has been known since as the Gold Cup. The first race, on the Hudson River in New York, was won by the nearly 60-foot-long Standard having an average speed of less than 25 mph from its 110-horsepower Standard engine. Boat racing was forever changed in 1911 when the Gold Cup was won by a hydroplane design, which of course was a planing hull as opposed to the displacement hull designs up until that time.

It was John L. Hacker who had earned accreditation as a marine designer at age 22 and focused his efforts on making boats go faster. Five years later, in 1904, his revolutionary Au Revoir with a shallow V-bottom design as opposed to a round bottom, set the record as the world’s fastest boat. Then in 1908, he purchased the Detroit Launch and Power Company and changed its name to the Hacker Boat Company.

In 1911, Hacker designed and built Kitty Hawk, the first stepped-hull hydroplane design which not only won the APBA Gold Cup that year but set an unthinkable world speed record over 50 mph. It held the record of the world’s fastest boat from 1911 to 1915. Top speed and average speeds rose almost yearly for both Harmsworth and Gold Cup events right into the 21st century.

There are a couple of interesting notes, however. America first won England’s Harmsworth Cup in 1907, and then every year from 1920 to 1933 mostly by the indomitable Gar Wood who later owned Chris-Craft Boats. Meanwhile, Chris Smith had built his first Chris-Craft race boat in 1905 achieving an ultra-impressive speed of 25 mph. Chris-Craft went on to win the Gold Cup for eight consecutive years. Much later, the Canadian owned, designed, and built hydroplane, Miss Supertest III entered only four races before it was retired, but it won all four races – the 1959 Detroit Memorial Regatta, and the 1959, 1960, and 1961 Harmsworth Cup races.

Three-time Harmsworth Cup Winner, Canada’s 'Miss Supertest III' on a Canadian Postage Stamp

The Union Internationale Motonautique (UIM) was established in 1922 in Belgium and headquartered in Monaco -- an emerging and now constant hotbed of powerboat racing. To this day, UIM is the overall governing body for all powerboat racing in the world. Regional associations such as the APBA in America and the Canadian Boating Federation (CBF) utilize UIM standards and categories for racing and for verifying world records and championships.

But, back to the progress in recreational powerboating. German engineer Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine in 1893. By 1903, Diesel had perfected the four-stroke compression-ignition internal combustion diesel engine. The first engine produced 25 horsepower and was an immediate commercial success. Diesel is still the choice of power for commercial shipping and larger pleasure yachts over 40 feet. In the modern era it has been “cleaned” up and lightened up to be installed inboard in smaller pleasure boats and, most recently, as the powerhead in several brands of outboard motors.

That detail provides an interesting segue. Up until 1900, the ICE delivered its power, except for paddlewheels, by means of a screw-type propeller on the end of a shaft colloquially called a propshaft. This propshaft would extend from the inboard-mounted engine on a slight downward angle and protrude through the bottom of the boat near the stern. Aft of the propeller was the rudder. There were two configurations based on the placement of the engine in the boat: the straight drive inboard and the V-drive inboard.

These two configurations were the power arrangement of choice for almost all pleasure boats. But, such an arrangement in small boats, punts, and skiffs was too expensive for the average family. Thus, powered pleasure boating was only within the realm of the rich. This changed with the invention and commercialization of the outboard motor. Credit for the development of the first outboard motor is very sketchy. It may have been Gustave Trouve in France in 1881, or it may have been later in America by the American Motor Company of Long Island, New York.

Then in 1903, American Cameron Waterman connected an air-cooled motorcycle engine to a propeller by means of sprockets. Patented and put into production in 1906 and redesigned to be water-cooled in 1907, some 3000 Waterman Porto outboard motors were sold. This is credited as the first commercially successful outboard motor.

With this development, outboard motors became accessible to the average family. They also became commercially viable and mechanically reliable in North America, and shortly thereafter throughout the world when engine tinkerer Ole Evinrude patented his 1.5 horsepower outboard motor in 1909 from his shop in Milwaukee. Good marketing from his wife Bess and a good product saw sales grow exponentially year over year.

Poor health forced Evinrude to sell out in 1913, but he kept inventing. In 1919, unable to use his own name on the motor, he established the Elto (Evinrude Light Twin Outboard) Motor Company in Milwaukee to produce a light weight twin-cylinder, 3-horsepower outboard motor. It quickly outsold local competitors Evinrude and Johnson. But Johnson, which had introduced diecast aluminum production, kept developing increasingly bigger horsepower motors to satisfy the growing need for speed. It soon began to outsell both Evinrude and Elto. The horsepower game had begun. The Johnson 6-horsepower Big Twin of 1926 set a world outboard speed record of 23 mph. Over the years, many new outboard motor brands became available.

Several decades later came the almost literal combination of both inboard and outboard power delivery. Jim Wynne was an American marine engineer, boat designer, a perfecter of the deep-vee hull design, and one of the first offshore racers. As a racer, he was able to see the advantages and disadvantages of both outboard and inboard powered boats. In his garage in his spare time, he set about trying to marry the best parts of the two concepts. Wynne created, tested, and patented the marine sterndrive, also known as the inboard-outboard.

Volvo Penta quickly purchased the rights to its manufacture from Wynne and introduced the Aquamatic Sterndrive to worldwide acclaim at the 1959 New York Boat Show. It combined the benefits of both the inboard and outboard propulsion units in one package -- a higher horsepower engine located inside the boat protected from the elements, and a steerable and trimmable propeller unit (the outdrive) located outside the boat.

The post-WWII economic boom gave a huge boost to the pleasure boat industry worldwide. The sizes and styles of boats, the methods and materials of manufacture, and the available niche marketing to satisfy the growing demand was huge. Nonetheless, shallow water was still the Achilles heel of the propeller.

To solve this, Keenan Hanley of Prospect, Ohio designed a waterjet -- basically a centrifugal pump which would take water in one end and expel it out the other end at a greater speed. He established Hanley Hydrojet and partnered with Kermath Manufacturing of Detroit to adapt it for pleasure boat use. The Hanley-Kermath Hydro-Jet coupled to an inboard engine and protruding only slightly below the hull was installed on a 17-foot runabout and hit the 1953 boat show circuit. It didn’t cause much excitement.

By 1954, Sir William Hamilton of New Zealand had been tinkering with the water jet idea. He modified the Hanley design to expel the water stream through a steerable nozzle above the waterline, thus removing any part of the waterjet from below the hull. This became the first Hamilton Waterjet. Hamilton Jet, along with several other water jet makers, have since grown and expanded to provide water jets to almost every sector of both pleasure boating and commercial shipping.

Other methods of delivering the power to the water include surface drives, perhaps the most notable one being the Arneson Surface Drive. There are other makers of surface drives too. One recent drive development in pleasure boats is the pod drive.

This article has only scratched the surface of the development of a huge industry, but suffice it to say that powerboating has come a long way since Daimler and Maybach first installed an ICE in a boat. #culture #innovatorsinboating

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