1864: An Automotive Innovator is Born in Indiana

August 25, 1864

Milton Reeves, who became a major trailblazer for the automobile industry, was born on a farm in east-central Indiana. When he was only a teenager working at a saw mill in Columbus, Indiana, Reeves demonstrated the formidable creativity and mechanical expertise that would define his entire life. After seeing how other workers were not able to control the speed of the pulleys used for operating the saws, Reeves — after a considerable amount of trial and error — invented a means for remedying that problem. Reeves’ solution was a variable-speed transmission that could effectively control the speeds of the saws through a continuous range of gear ratios.

In 1888, Milton Reeves joined his brothers Marshal and Girney in purchasing the Edinburg Pulley Company. They renamed this business the Reeves Pulley Company and moved its operations to Columbus. Milton Reeves’ variable-speed transmission became one of the company’s leading products.

By the 1890s, Reeves had developed a strong interest in motor vehicles. He became one of the first people to build an automobile in the United States. Reeves equipped his version with not only his trademark variable-speed transmission but also a drive belt to help further improve that vehicle’s performance on the road. Reeves’ four-wheeled automobile was powered by a two-cylinder, six-horsepower (4.5-kilowatt) engine manufactured by the Sintz Gas Engine Company. The coach for this vehicle was built by the Fehring Carriage Company.

The problems that Reeves encountered with this automobile included the engine’s excessive noise and fumes. To help mitigate those engine-related problems, Reeves achieved an industry “first” by developing a double muffler for his vehicle.

Reeves continued pursuing automotive innovations well into the first several years of the 20th century. In 1905, he built an air-cooled engine that featured individually cast cylinders and an early form of lubrication. Reeves obtained a contract with the automobile manufacturer Aerocar Company to produce 500 of those engines. By 1906, he was making 15 engines per week as part of that agreement. Reeves eventually also created engines for such other automobile manufacturers as the Auburn Automobile Company, the Auto-Bug Company, the Chatham Motor Car Company, and the Moon Motor Car Company.

In 1911, Reeves’ automotive career took a new turn when he established his own manufacturing company. Reeves acquired a four-wheeled model that had been built the previous year by the Overland Automobile Company and proceeded to modify that vehicle. He added four more wheels to the automobile and renamed it the Reeves Octo-Auto. Reeves went on to build several versions of this automobile. The Reeves Octo-Auto was equipped with a 40-horsepower (29-kilowatt) engine and measured more than 20 feet (6.1 meters) in length. (Reeves can be seen driving one of these automobiles in the above photo.)

While praised at the time for its durability and comfort, the decidedly unconventional Reeves Octo-Auto proved to be a sales dud. Consequently, in 1912, Reeves came up with a six-wheeled version that he called the Reeves Sexto-Auto. This luxury car likewise never caught on with the public.

These vehicles were not Reeves’ only failures as a manufacturer of motor vehicles. His efforts to create both seven- and 20- passenger buses during the 1890s, for example, proved to be similarly unsuccessful. Reeves, who died in 1925 in his Indiana hometown of Columbus, has instead earned lasting acclaim for his development of automotive components and in particular his pioneering versions of variable-speed transmission and the double muffler.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Milton Reeves, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Reeves

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