American Ingenuity

I have been reading a book about Henry Ford called I Invented the Modern Age by Richard Snow.  In it, Snow makes the point that, at the same time that Ford was building his first automobile, there were many men in many garages around the country attempting the same feat and, incredibly, each of those men was operating in a vacuum.  Snow quotes Ford as saying, “I had to work from the ground up – that is, although I knew a number of people were working on horseless carriages, I could not know what they were doing.”

It is a testament to American ingenuity that so many were successful in creating a working automobile, and I recently discovered there was one such man right in my home town.  His name was T. H. Bolte, and he was a machinist and bicycle builder in Kearney, Nebraska.  He completed his automobile in the summer of 1900 after working on it for approximately a year and a half.  With the exception of the engine, he had to create everything, down to the last gear, by hand.  When he started building the automobile, he had never seen one in person.

Bolte’s machine weighed about 650 pounds and used a double gearing, one on each side.  It initially had a 2 hp gasoline engine that could only go 10 mph.  Happily, the local paper published this photo so we know what it looked like:


Bolte continued to sell bicycles and began selling automobiles as well.  This is one of his ads:

He later went into the cement business and improved, patented and sold cement mixers.  Bolte was also serving on the city council in 1904 when they passed an ordinance making it illegal to drive any vehicle other than a bicycle or tricycle within the city at a greater rate of speed than 12 mph.  The punishment for violating this ordinance was arrest and fine of not more than $100 or imprisonment not to exceed 30 days!  Every councilman voted in favor of the ordinance except for Bolte who said it “would make lawbreakers of the people.”

Bolte was absolutely correct in voting against it, but another little blurb that was published in 1901 further explains his stance.  His 2 hp engine had given out and he had replaced it with a 4 hp engine capable of making a speed of 15 mph.  Bolte was definitely my kind of guy.

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