Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 3

Underwood's Post-Lambert Patents, part three of an ongoing series.

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courtesy of Will Cummings
Frank M. Underwood, circa 1900

This is a continuation of research presented chronologically on the Ohio Motor Co. and its local predecessor, the Underwood Motor Co. If anyone can add to the information presented here, please share it publicly for the benefit of all.

Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 1

Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 2

Comins Mfg. Co., Upper Sandusky, Ohio

The letterhead (Figure 1) indicates to us that by February 10, 1896, F.M. Underwood was working with the Comins Mfg. Co. of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, although Underwood’s name is not mentioned. The content of the letter is a response to a request for parts for an existing engine in Cadiz, Ohio, so we know that some engines were built and sold in 1895 or before, presumably in the shops of Quast and/or Frey-Scheckler of Bucyrus, Ohio. The text of the letter tells us that “our foundry will not be ready to operate until next week.” The design of the engine portrayed continues to follow its Lambert heritage closely.

old Comins letterheadFigure 1: A Comins Mfg. Co. letterhead dated February 10, 1896.

The Comins Mfg. Co., Eighth Street, Upper Sandusky, Ohio, is rather obscure, but I did find a 1902 reference to Mr. Comins building a portable steam engine and a steam-powered automobile. We can assume that Comins Mfg. Co. employed only a few people. In the book Upper Sandusky & Wyandot County, A Pictorial History, there is a picture of an early gas-powered “ice sled” built by an un-named local, but it seems far-fetched to attribute it to Underwood.

So, for a quick review of the timeline, a January 1896 edition of The Horseless Age has Underwood with Frey-Scheckler, the February edition of the same magazine lists him in Bucyrus, Ohio, but not associated with an employer, and by February 10, 1896, he is associated with the Comins Mfg. Co. of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

It is interesting to note that the following advertisement first appeared in the The Horseless Age “Special Notices” during September 1896: “A successful inventor and designer of gas, gasoline and kerosene motors, for stationary and road purposes, desires a situation in which he can have a moderate salary and an interest in his inventions. Address ‘OHIO’ care THE HORSELESS AGE.”

The advertisement is repeated every issue from November 1896 through September 1897. I have no way of proving it, but I highly suspect that these advertisements were placed by none other than Underwood.

black and white patent 571448

On March 5, 1896, John Lambert applied for patent 571448 for a governor design as shown in Figure 2. This was granted on November 17, 1896. Other early Lambert patents include 582532, 634242, 640667, 640668, and 660778, but since Underwood doesn’t appear to have followed them, we will not include them in this writing.

The Underwood Motor Co. of Sandusky, Ohio

Underwood’s black and white letterhead

The next-known company that Underwood was associated with was the Underwood Motor Co. of Sandusky, Ohio, as displayed in letterhead of Figure 3. Note that the word “Upper” is crossed out. The text of this letter reads “I have lived here [Sandusky] for 6 mon.” Apparently, engine production in Upper Sandusky only lasted about four months. Incidentally, Upper Sandusky is “up” the Sandusky River, about 55 miles distance as the crow flies. While Upper Sandusky is landlocked and a relatively small community with a primarily agricultural economy, Sandusky is a significantly larger and more industrialized town situated on a Lake Erie port. By 1896, both the steamship and the railroad industries had been active in Sandusky for generations resulting in numerous machine shops, foundries, and other technologies present.

There is no reference to either The Underwood Motor Co. or Frank M. Underwood in the 1896-97 Sandusky City Directory. The following quote appears in a local history account that was written about 40 years after the fact. I believe that the “traveling man” referred to in this paragraph was Underwood, and the mention of the early marine engine refers to an Underwood-built engine. Although the author of this paragraph is not named, it was probably George A. Schwer, an employee of the Ohio Motor Co. for about 17 years before moving to the Dauch Manufacturing Co., builders of the Sandusky tractor.

“Back in 1896, there were very few gasoline engines that would run at all and none that were dependable. George A. Schwer, then 22 years old and a clerk at the local hotel, became interested in a gasoline engine, which a traveling man had attached to a conventional bicycle. With his father, Albert Schwer, an excellent mechanic, he started to develop a gasoline engine capable of delivering dependable power. By 1897, they had such an engine ready for the market. With Henry C. Strong, Cornelius E. Nielson, and Randolph Schuck, they formed the Ohio Motor Co. to manufacture and sell it. Originally, they built marine engines. After a few years, they concentrated on stationary engines in a dozen sizes from 4 to 50 horsepower. Ohio Motor Co. continued until the early 1920s. During the period it produced over 10,000 engines, which were sold across the country as well as in Canada, South America, and some European countries.”

It seems that, in the late spring of 1896, Underwood was again looking for his next business opportunity. An engine small enough to be mounted on a bicycle hints strongly at the opposed-piston American Vehicle Motor. The previous statement that “originally, they built marine engines” causes me to suspect that Underwood continued his interest in smaller engines rather than the heavy double-flywheel, side-shaft engines that went on to become the hallmark of the Ohio Motor Co. From a memoir article in the Sandusky Register of November 25, 1978, we learn that these early marine engines were of the one-, two-, and three-cylinder vertical design. Except for the possibility of a newspaper photograph of an Elmore-built Underwood engine slated for an upcoming edition of this series, I have not been able to find any other references to marine engines built by either the Underwood Motor Co. or the Ohio Motor Co. in Sandusky, Ohio.

blue stained glass window with start design

The 1898-99 Sandusky City Directory lists the Underwood Motor Co. as being incorporated May 24, 1897, with $10,000 capital stock. The firm was located at 232 Columbus Ave., Sandusky. The president was Henry C. Strong, who remained as president of the Ohio Motor Co. until the end. Later historical accounts indicate that while Mr. Strong may have been a well-qualified business man, he was no mechanic or designer of gasoline engines. His memory lives on in the book History of Erie County as well as in a window at Grace Episcopal Church (Figure 4).

Also, in the 1898-99 Sandusky City Directory, we find Underwood and his wife Lucy residing at 616 Perry St. His occupation is listed simply as “motor manufacturer.”

It would appear that Underwood worked to incorporate the Underwood Motor Co. of Sandusky, Ohio, beginning around June of 1896, passing the milestone incorporation date May 24, 1897, and then moving away to other interests by sometime in 1899.
Kimes & Clark reports, “In 1899, in Akron, Francis X. Frantz of the Frantz Body Manufacturing Company announced that he was pursuing the notion of entering the automobile industry. The following year, in Bucyrus, the assets of the Ohio Gas Engine Co. were purchased by a consortium, which included Underwood and which announced its intention to transfer operations to Sandusky and to begin automobile manufacture. This group did make it to Sandusky, styling itself as the Sandusky Automobile Manufacturing Company, but dissention immediately broke out, and Underwood resigned during the spring of 1900.”

A newspaper article dated February 10, 1900, states, “Articles of incorporation for the Sandusky Automobile Manufacturing Company were filed yesterday with the secretary of state, and the new company put on a legal basis for the manufacture of horseless carriages … Already one of the machines has been made and on its trial trips has proven itself to be all that could be desired. It was made at the factory of the Underwood Motor Co. under the personal direction of Mr. F.M. Underwood, who will be one of the chief stockholders of the new company. The motive power is a gasoline engine of the pattern made by Mr. Underwood.”

The Sandusky Star of February 17, 1900, lists the new company’s officers and the capital value of $50,000. Interestingly, one of the directors was an A.B. Pickett of Union City, Indiana, the same small town where Underwood had worked for the Buckeye Mfg. Co. about six years previously.

By February 25, 1900, The Sandusky Star indicates that the Sandusky Automobile Co. was renting a large stone building between Water Street and Sandusky Bay. More interesting it recorded, “Part of the machinery, which was purchased from the Ohio gas engine concern in Bucyrus also arrived here yesterday.” This, Kimes & Clark, and The Elmore Independent of March 8, 1901, are the only references I can find regarding an engine manufacturer in Bucyrus, Ohio, that used the name “Ohio” for their product. Although I cannot prove this point, it appears to me that Underwood was falling out of the favor of Underwood Motor Co. (of Sandusky, Ohio) investors. I am guessing that the other Underwood Motor Co. investors ended up with the “Ohio” name (and perhaps the casting patterns) from the Ohio Gas Engine firm of Bucyrus, Ohio, and that the Sandusky Automobile Manufacturing Co. bought manufacturing equipment only from the Ohio Gas Engine firm of Bucyrus, Ohio. If it is any comfort, at least the “Ohio” engine name survived for over 20 years of manufacture, and is still well-known to engine collectors today. There were no major changes in the design of the heavy four-cycle, sideshaft, horizontal-cylinder Sandusky-built Ohio Motor Co. engines from the start until the firm closed its doors in the early 1920s.

If my guesses are correct, that would mean that the Ohio Gas Engine Co. of Bucyrus was a group of investors that had casting molds left from Underwood’s time with Quast and/or Frey-Scheckler a few years earlier, built yet another Underwood-associated engine during late 1896-1898, perhaps in the Quast shops, and that sometime before 1900 the Ohio Gas Engine Co. of Bucyrus had failed financially. Indeed, the sale of the manufacturing equipment is fairly close in time after Quast closed its Bucyrus, Ohio, facility and moved to Illinois. Remember from an earlier article in this series the 1902 newspaper interview that read, “In 1898 he sold out and bought the Quast plant of Bucyrus and moved it to Elmore, Ohio.” Some of the assets from the Bucyrus firms almost certainly did end up in Elmore, Ohio, but probably not before they served in Sandusky, Ohio.

This mention of the Ohio Gas Engine Co. of Bucyrus, presumably operating sometime in the 1895-1898 time period, in combination with a later (1901) customer reference to purchasing a 10hp gas engine from Underwood in 1895, suggests that there may have been a double set of casting patterns. One set of patterns may have remained in use in Bucyrus while Underwood was casting from a second set of patterns at the Comins Mfg. Co. in Upper Sandusky. Likely, the Upper Sandusky set of patterns passed directly to the Sandusky-based Underwood Motor Co. and remained there through the name change to The Ohio Motor Co. of Sandusky, Ohio. The earlier set of patterns used by the Ohio Gas Engine Co. (of Bucyrus, Ohio) likely came to Sandusky with the plant equipment purchased by the Sandusky Automobile Co. This theory could help to explain how both the Ohio Motor Co. (Sandusky, Ohio) and the Underwood Motor Co. of Elmore, Ohio (and its successor, the Buckeye Gas Engine Co. of Delta, Ohio) both ended up with casting patterns of the same essential design. Whew, was that sufficiently complicated?

How long did it take to tool up to build the flywheel-style Underwood engines, create the casting molds, have the castings made, do the machine work, and finally work through the inevitable mistakes until they had a reliable running engine? Normally, this could be expected to take at least several months, or the average time that Underwood spent with each of several different companies in the mid-1890s. Incidentally, in the book Something New Under The Sun: The History of America’s First Car, mention is made that some of the gears and other standard parts for the Lambert/Buckeye (of Union City) engines were purchased from a firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Underwood would have known this from his association with the Buckeye Mfg. Co. and likely also purchased similar parts out-of-house. How was Underwood able to orchestrate the transfer of casting molds, custom manufacturing tools, inventory of parts, etc., through multiple moves? Normally when a person changes employments frequently, the terms of departure are less than amicable, and yet somehow the manufacturing continuity seems to have endured through at least five companies over about a six-year period.

This F.M. Underwood series will continue in future issues of Gas Engine Magazine.

Upper Sandusky & Wyandot County, a Pictorial History Biographical Memories of Wyandot Co., Ray D. Gottfried, 1902.
The Horseless Age magazine, January 1896, February 1896.
Something New Under The Sun: The History of America’s First Car, Carol Jean Lambert; Sandusky City Directory, 1898-99.
Standard Catalog of American Automobiles, 1896-1897, 1898-1899.
Kimes & Clark, 1805-1942.
Sandusky Register, February 10, 1900, February 25, 1900, June 14, 1968, November 25, 1978.
Sandusky Star, February 17, 1900.
Elmore Independent, March 8, 1901.
History of Erie County, Hewson L. Peeke, 1916.
U.S. patent 571448, November 17, 1896.

Will Cummings has enjoyed old equipment shows and museums for many years, and has travelled to most U.S. states and Canadian provinces to see them. He especially enjoys researching old engines built in his home area of Castalia, Ohio. He can be reached at

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