Cunningham Lawnmower

Cunningham Lawnmower, made in the years of 1946 to 1955. I have three of these but just this one is restored.

Content Tools

559 Sheldon Road, Palmyra, New York 14522

I think this article will be of interest to many small engine collectors. I have never seen Cunningham mentioned in GEM.

This is the story of a firm, James Cunningham, Son and Company, that once made carriages and now makes crossbar switches. Founded in the days of handicraft, the firm survives-and prospers-in an era so new that most of us have not yet caught up with it: the era of automation. Moreover, Cunningham has always been owned and managed by the members of one family. Its fourth president is the great-grandson of the first. But something more than a name has survived: the firm has spanned the Industrial Revolution without losing its essential character for quality production.

However, the history of a company, even as old a company as Cunningham, should not be presented without some explanation, for 'company history' can mean anything from advertising to a statistical abstract of operations; as a form of reading matter it is suspect.

At some of the shows that I attended last year, I recall seeing two Cunningham engines. This sparked my interest in these little engines and the reason for this story. I now have seven of these engines, three on lawnmowers, one on a sickle bar and three extra engines.

The Cunningham Company was founded in 1838 in Rochester, N.Y. by James Cunningham who came to Rochester from Cobourg, Canada, a small town near Toronto. He had a great interest in woodworking and designing. The young company started producing sleighs and buggies. In order to sell his products, Cunningham would often hitch up a team of horses to a buggie and hook up several more buggies in a string and head upstate New York toward Buffalo and Niagara Falls demonstrating his product. More often than not, he would return home on horseback: the indication of a successful selling trip. The company built not only carriages, but also ambulances and hearses.

Prices ranged from $400.00 to $2500.00, depending on the design and the amount of wood carving that went into each product; a lot of money in those days.

In 1848 the original factory burned, but business was good and Cunningham was able to replace it with a new building immediately. This building still stands today on Canal Street in Rochester. It is now occupied by the Bravo Macaroni Company.

Things weren't always good at the Cunningham Company as it survived two depressions, one in 1857 and the other in 1873, and also two strikes, first one in 1882 and the second in 1904.

In the early 1900s, it became quite evident to the Cunningham Company that the automobile was replacing the carriage. The early automobiles were either electric or steam. Around 1900 there were 1,000 companies making autos of some sort, but as late as 1925 only fifteen survived. At first they made only bodies and assembled the rest of the car from engines, transmissions, axles and radiators made by proprietary companies, but by 1910 it was producing all these itself. Prices rose to $4,500 and $5,000. These cars were not made for the popular market but for customers of the sort that bought its carriages.

In 1916 Cunningham made the first car in America with a V-8 engine. It was the first car to do away with running-boards, using instead, steps of brass-framed aluminum. As in the carriage-making days most of the metal- and wood-work was done by hand. By 1919, prices rose, a roadster cost $6,200, the average price for a town car was $8,000 but cars made to order might cost as much as $15,000. I'm sure some of you old timers out there in engine land will remember the Cunningham car. I can't recall seeing one myself.

In 1928 Cunningham ventured into a new market, plane production. Not many were made, but did make planes from 1929 to 1936. In 1931 Cunningham ceased to produce cars. For five more years it made bodies for other manufacturers, in particular, a town car body for Ford which added $2,000 to Ford's current price of $600; and then in 1936 it was entirely out of the automobile business.

I remember seeing one such car, a 1936 Ford owned by a wealthy family in Rochester, N. Y. It was a town car, with the chauffeur sitting in the open.

It seems that the Cunninghams liked to experiment. As early as 1927 they were working on a light fast army tank. In March 1928, its first tank was tested at Aberdeen, Maryland. It was equipped with a revolving turret and armed with a 37 millimeter cannon and a .30 caliber machine gun. It traveled twenty miles an hour, more than three times as fast as any tank that had been produced up to that time. In 1935 Cunningham developed a tank that would go fifty-five miles an hour.

By 1943 Cunningham was employing eight hundred men in a variety of war jobs. Most of its work consisted of sub-contracts for other producers, notably gear boxes operated by servo-motors for controlling wing surfaces, canopies, gunners' turrets, and tail surfaces in bomber planes. Aside from their military value, these had some significance for the firm; they were forerunners of its present electro-mechanical products.

When the war ended in 1945, Cunningham had the satisfaction of having made an honorable contribution, but essentially it was in the same situation it had been in during the late thirties. It lacked a product suited to its special talents.

Hopefully, in 1946 the firm produced small farm and garden machines: sickle-bars, lawn-mowers, garden tractors and rotary tillers. By 1948 there were more than ninety other companies in the overcrowded field. The garden tractor was equipped with a Wisconsin engine and the others with the Cunningham engine. There were two models of the Cunningham engine, the EA and the EB. The EA is the scarcer model. I have only one of these. Essentially, they are the same except for the carburetor. Both models are rated one and a half horsepower. As near as I can find out, 225,000 to 250,000 of these small engines were made. Just when production was stopped on this garden equipment I'm not sure, but I believe it to be 1955.

Although Cunningham was producing garden equipment in 1948, it ventured into still another line. Apparently no manufacturer had given serious consideration to it. Trailer living was becoming a standard feature on the American scene. Cunningham made a survey and then designed and produced a complete line of plumbing fixtures for house-trailers.

By 1950, Cunningham was enjoying a modest success in plumbing fixtures for house-trailers. It attract ed the attention of larger competitors, better equipped to exploit the markets it had discovered. Already competition from mass-producers of plumbing fixtures was beginning to make itself felt, but even as this was happening, Cunningham, almost by accident, found the product that it was suited by temperament and tradition to make. This was the crossbar switch.

In 1946 a young electrical engineer, Andrew W. Vincent, left his job with Stromberg-Carlson in Rochester in order to devote himself to perfecting a small dial telephone system of his own devising.

The switch that Vincent considered was-and still is-the ultimate development of electro-mechanical telephone switching. Early telephone systems had relied upon an operator at a switchboard to make connections between callers. As the number of subscribers mounted and as telephone systems were linked from town to town, the role of the operator became more complex; it was simply to find and hold a path of communication through a network of wires. The crossbar switch changed that by performing this role automatically. When you dial a number nowadays you are, in effect, instructing a machine instead of a human operator to connect you with whatever telephone you are calling. A lot more could be written about the crossbar switch, but I feel it would be of no interest to the engine collector. I have left out a lot of history of the Cunningham Company, but feel that I have brought out the most important part of a company that has been in business for one hundred and thirty eight years.

The Cunningham Company is now located in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. having moved there in 1961.