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Warner's 'Newfangled' Speedometer

Warner "Auto-Meter," Model K-2, made
by the Warner Instrument Company of
Beloit, Wisconsin, c. 1906-1910.

(Museum object #1989.81.1)

When automobiles began taking over roads across the country in the late nineteenth century, their drivers had no reliable way to tell them exactly how fast their vehicles were going. At first this did not cause much concern as the earliest automobiles could only attain moderate speeds, but as cars got faster a need to know one's speed became increasingly important. Arthur P. and Charles H. Warner, two brothers from Beloit, Wisconsin, filled this need with their patented "auto-meter," which provided drivers not only with accurate readings of speeds up to 60 mph, but also kept track of the distances their cars had gone.

Coming from a sales background and largely self-educated in electrical engineering, A.P. Warner rose quickly through the ranks of the Northern Electric Company of Madison, Wisconsin and by 1897, at the age of only 27, became the head of the company's Milwaukee office. In Milwaukee, A.P. became familiar with automobiles through the Wood Electric car, which A.P. used to help advertise the Northern Electric Company whose products helped recharge the car's batteries. He also saw the need for an instrument to measure acceleration in a uniform manner to reflect the actual speed as it increased.

Initially, the Warner brothers worked together to develop a magnetic "cut-meter" to serve as a speed indicator for industrial machinery. They felt that machine shops across the country would benefit greatly from such a device. A.P. worked at General Electric in Schenectedy, New York, when the cut-meter was perfected and he offered the invention to G.E., but the company turned him down not seeing a large enough market for the device. Undaunted, A.P. returned to Beloit and, with his brother, opened the Warner Instrument Company in 1903 to produce cut-meters themselves.

While trying to sell his cut-meter on a sales trip to Chicago, A.P. Warner found one potential client who dismissed the cut-meter, but expressed great interest in the "auto-meter," as the Warners called their early speedometers. Before A.P. returned home to Beloit, he had sold five auto-meters to the shop owner and his friends for $75 each (at the time, $70 could purchase the most expensive piano offered by Sears & Roebuck Co.). Until that time, the Warners had considered their auto-meter only as a "luxury gadget," but they soon concentrated their attention on this new product and sales boomed. As ever more automobiles populated the streets, the Warners potential customer base continued to grow and their market share rose as well, due largely to the superior magnetic design of their product.

Most speedometers of the time depended upon centrifugal force to measure speed, but this technology relied on many wearable parts that, as they wore down, yielded increasingly inaccurate readings. By contrast, the Warner brothers' auto-meter used magnetic principles to reduce the number of parts that could fail, which produced a far more dependable and long-lasting product. In addition, the Warners brought to market the first speedometer to combine both speed and distance indicators into a single instrument, and later also added a clock and lighted dials to some models of their auto-meter.

The addition of an odometer to measure and reset "touring trip" distances was another important advance for many users since road maps of the early twentieth century were scarce and often undependable. Guide books often proved the most reliable means of navigation, but used directions such as "Turn right at the yellow house and go 3.5 miles to a crossroad; turn left 4 miles to the school house, then right 7.5 miles." Without an accurate means to gauge distance, a driver would have to stop frequently to ask directions.

One competitor, the Stewart and Clark Company of Chicago, abandoned its centrifugal model speedometers and started to manufacture magnetic-based speedometers based closely on the Warner model. The Warners sued for patent infringement and eventually won, but still sold their company to Stewart and Clark in 1912 for $1,800,000. The new company reorganized as Stewart-Warner and by the 1920s Warner magnetic speedometers became standard equipment on over 90% of the automobiles manufactured in the United States.

In addition to their speedometer success, the Warner brothers continued to invent and market many other products such as auto and truck trailers, electric brakes and clutches, basing many of their businesses out of Beloit. As part of their interest in advertising and association with timing instruments, the Warners also served as official timers of the fledgling Indianapolis 500 auto race for several years. The winner of the Indy 500 still receives the Borg-Warner Trophy to this day.

[Sources: Welty, S.F. "The Man Who Invented MPH," Car Life, July 1957; Warner, A.P. "Making Things" (Beloit, WI: 1955, on file in WHS Archives MSS 995); "The Final Truth About Speed Indicators" (Beloit, WI: Warner Instrument Co., on file in WHS Archives MSS 995, Company Publications); "Warners Sell for $2,000,000," The Beloit Daily, December 23, 1912.]

SFR


Posted on May 17, 2007

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  • Business, Technology, & Labor
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