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Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 1

Author Photo
By Will Cummings

Discover the fascinating history behind an obscure engine and machinery builder.

tandem engine
courtesy of Will Cummings
A Hicks tandem engine illustration labeled “The Hicks compound cylinder gas and gasoline engine, right side.”

Many years ago, I started to research the Ohio Motor Co. and found some history, but I will save that for a later article. The most fascinating data about the Ohio Motor Co. was that it had a local predecessor, the Underwood Motor Co. I had done considerable research on local engine and machinery builders, but I had never heard of F.M. Underwood or the Underwood Motor Co. Although the project has grown to be quite lengthy, I am amazed at how much information about this obscure man can be found. I will present his history in chronological order, intended to include the most accurate information, with minimal opinions. Due to following a chronological timeline, at some points the subject matter may appear eclectic, please be patient. If anyone can add to the information presented here, please share it publicly for the benefit of all.

The Early Years

Frank M. Underwood had an interesting career spanning many different employments. A February 1902 newspaper interview, Figure 1, reads “Born in West Virginia in 1854, at the age of eleven his family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he received his education. His first employment came in 1875, when he superintended the wood sawyers for the Michigan Central railway. He kept this position about a year, but left when the railroad began using coal.

“Mr. Underwood then hopped from job to job, including superintendent of the Columbus Wheel and Bending Works; spent five years travelling for the Estelle Harvest Machine Co., of Whitewater, Wisconsin; superintendent of the Conklin Automatic Cultivator Works, Wauseon, Ohio; superintendent of the J.L. Lockhart Machine Works, Bellefontaine; foreman of the machine department of the Buckeye Mfg. Co., Union City, Indiana; superintendent of the Cummings  Mfg. Co, Upper Sandusky, Ohio; superintendent of the Quais Gas Engine Co.; superintendent of the Austin Automatic Boiler Feeder Co., Marion, Ohio; and, in 1896, organized the stock company in Sandusky, Ohio, known as the Underwood Motor Co. and became the superintendent. In 1898, he sold and bought the Quais plant of Bucyrus and moved it to Elmore, Ohio, and called it the F.M. Underwood Gas Engine & Motor Co.  Lastly, June 1901, he sold out and was attracted to the East Side [of Toledo, Ohio].”

While the above list seems to generally be in chronological order, its probable that F.M. Underwood’s employment with the Quast Gas Engine Co. (of Bucyrus, Ohio) preceded that of the Comins Mfg. Co. Unmentioned in the above list are associations with the Frey-Scheckler Co., Bucyrus, Ohio, and the Sandusky Automobile Co., Sandusky, Ohio.

As an excursus, the Columbus Wheel & Bending Co. appears to have been a supplier of wooden wheels and other bent wooden parts for carriages. The J.L. Lockhart Machine Works patented a steam boiler tube cleaner about 1901 and therefore they may have built reciprocating steam engines, but I have not found any indication that they had any interest in internal combustion engines. The 1893 Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide lists the Conklin Automatic Cultivator Works.

Critical to note in the above résumé is Frank Underwood’s employment with the Buckeye Mfg. Co. of Union City, Indiana. I recommend that you view Lambert Gas and Gasoline Engine Company, which indicates that John William Lambert moved to Union City in 1891 and earlier in 1891 had demonstrated the very first gasoline-powered car in America. In the book Something New Under The Sun; The History Of America’s First Automobile, John Lambert’s great-granddaughter writes (of the Buckeye Mfg. Co.), “Engine production probably began in earnest in late 1892 or early 1893.” John Lambert writes to Ray Lambert, “[I] began in the gasoline engine business in the fall of 1892.”

By sometime in 1893, J.W. Lambert had moved to Anderson, Indiana, and established the Lambert Gas & Gasoline Engine Co. as well as the Buckeye Mfg. Co. The Buckeye Mfg. Co. was a significant business, reportedly hiring more than 250 people. This seems to place Underwood’s employment with Lambert-Buckeye beginning no earlier than the fall of 1892 and ending by sometime in 1893 when Lambert moved his facilities from Union City to Anderson, Indiana.

It can be inferred that F.M. Underwood learned a great deal about gas engines during his time with the Buckeye Mfg. Co. and carried that knowledge throughout the rest of his career. For this reason, we will review the development of the Lambert-Buckeye engines before following F.M. Underwood through his post-Lambert-Buckeye years.

In the 1870s, John William Lambert (1860-1952) was taken by his father to a tannery in Greenville, Ohio, to see an engine that could run without a steam boiler.  It was a slide-valve Otto (coal-gas) engine. John Lambert had an inventive mind and this ability was encouraged by his father. John Lambert’s first patent (No. 178166) for a corn-planter was granted in 1876; it was filed in his father’s name (possibly because John was still a minor).

In December of 1890, John B. Hicks of Cleveland, Ohio, applied for a patent on a stationary gasoline engine.  John Lambert travelled to Cleveland to meet Mr. Hicks where he obtained a license allowing use “only on land vehicles other than railway or tramway cars.”  John Hicks put John Lambert in touch with a former employee, William Wacholtz, who could oversee the making of the parts that Lambert designed.  Initially Wacholtz was paid $200 to work on the project but soon Lambert’s expense grew to $3,300 and the engine still wouldn’t run.

Lambert had the engine shipped from the Lowell Machine Works in Cleveland to a small shop in nearby Van Wert, Ohio, where Lambert could personally develop it. Initially a three-cylinder engine with 3-½-inch bore and 4-inch stroke, the outer end of the crankshaft broke not once but twice before the engine ran well. Each time Lambert solved the problem by removing a cylinder.

As a side note, John Hicks continued developing engines, apparently quite independent from John Lambert. See Page 230 of American Gas & Gasoline Engines Since 1872 Vol. 1 for more details.

automobile

The first gasoline automobile built by J.W. Lambert in 1891.

A vertical Hicks engine of 1893 doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Lambert-Buckeye design. An 1896 advertisement shows the Hicks horizontal tandem engine being built by the Detroit Gas Engine Co., Detroit, Michigan. However, by 1902, the Hicks line of horizontal tandem engines does share some features with the Lambert-Buckeye design, including a side shaft operating intake valves, exhaust valves, and ignitor, as well as drawing the intake air from the crankcase. The Hicks engine, shown in Figure 2, seems to be dated 1902; when considering the rapid advance of early engine design, this makes the design rather obsolete for 1902. Apparently, by this time, manufacture of the Hicks engines was back in Cleveland, Ohio.

Returning to J.W. Lambert, from the Wiki website notice that J.W. Lambert’s first car from 1891, Figure 3, included a horizontal water-cooled four-cycle engine with a single five-spoke flywheel. Close inspection reveals that the side of the flywheel has a double-faced ring.  While we cannot see much of the design of this first Lambert engine in the only picture of the first gasoline-powered automobile, it seems likely that the double-faced five-spoke flywheel feature goes back to William Wacholtz. I would like to assume that this first engine had a side shaft; however, knowing that it was originally a three-cylinder engine diminishes this probability.

J.W. Lambert’s Patents

Early gas engine inventors were able to easily inherit the essential reciprocating-piston technology from steam engines, but one of the major challenges was properly mixing the fuel and air for efficient combustion. From the Iron Trade Review of June 14, 1894, we learn, “The liquid is used in its natural state in the Lambert engine and is stored in a galvanized iron tank, which may be placed within or without the building and direct connection made with the engine by means of a small iron pipe. The gasoline is closely confined at all times until it enters the cylinder ….”  Note another challenge that early gas engines faced was the safe handling of gasoline within a building, thus the desire to place the combined gasoline storage tank/mixer outside a building. Presumably this is the setup illustrated in J.W. Lambert’s patent 474838, applied for on November 12, 1891, granted May 17, 1892, see Figure 4.

patent

J.W. Lambert’s first carburetor patent, applied for on November 12, 1891.

J.W. Lambert followed up his first carburetor patent with the much-improved design, Figure 5, of patent 517344, applied for on August 28, 1893 and granted on March 27, 1894.

patent

Lambert’s carburetor design of 1893.

On February 16, 1894, John Lambert applied for patent 534163, Figure 6, covering design features of engines that were already in production. This patent was granted on February 12, 1895. This may have been for general protection of his designs, or possibly this patent application was in direct response to F.M. Underwood’s attempts to independently build engines that were close to the designs developed by John Lambert. Note the mechanical actuation of the intake valve and the battery-saving electrical circuit-breaking action of the exhaust valve rocker, see Figure 7.

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Figure 6: Lambert’s patent 534163 was applied for on February 16, 1894.

Thirteen months later, on March 14, 1895, F.M. Underwood applied for a patent on a “mixer” design that is quite similar to J.W. Lambert’s carburetor patent. F.M. Underwood’s patent application includes multiple drawings of several general engine design features that appear to closely follow J.W. Lambert’s patent that was applied for earlier.  F.M. Underwood’s patent was not granted until December 29, 1896.

patent

Figure 7: Lambert’s patent 534163 was applied for on February 16, 1894.

Although uncertain, it seems likely that F.M. Underwood had left the Buckeye Mfg. Co. (of Union City) before Lambert’s second carburetor patent application, although Underwood may well have been familiar with the second carburetor design.  It seems clear that F.M. Underwood was well aware of J.W. Lambert’s work even though F.M. Underwood’s employment with J.W. Lambert likely ended sometime in 1893. Perhaps some concepts of the carburetor/mixer design originated with F.M. Underwood, but that seems unlikely in light of the fact that J.W. Lambert’s career as an inventor, designer, and manufacturer far surpassed that of F.M. Underwood’s.

patent

Figure 8: An illustration of a 4hp Lambert engine circa 1894.

Also, from the Iron Trade Review of June 14, 1894, we have this beautiful picture of a 4hp Lambert engine, Figure 8, as built by the Buckeye Mfg. Co. (of Union City, later Anderson, Indiana). From the accompanying text we learn that it was built in sizes from 2 to 50hp, and that all sizes over 2hp were equipped with dual flywheels. The 4hp engine ran at 300rpm and weighed 900 pounds. We assume from the presence of the needle-valve handwheel that it utilized the second patented carburetor design. Note the essential 4-cycle design of the layshaft, gear-driven vertical-shaft-flyball governor, and the exhaust valve mechanism are already in place. These will continue throughout many Lambert, Underwood, and Ohio Motor Co. engines. However, this drawing does not show the air intake drawing through a pipe from the engine crankcase like the later Underwood and Ohio engines. In Figure 9, we see an actual Lambert engine of a similar design to the drawing, except that the actual engine includes an air intake pipe leading from the crankcase.  This piped-air intake is a feature seen on F.M. Underwood’s patent 574183, but not in J.W. Lambert’s Gas Engine patent 534163, see Figure 6.

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Figure 9: A Lambert engine circa 1894.

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Figure 10: A Lambert engine circa 1894.

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Lambert’s patent 536287 dated March 26, 1895.

On July 18, 1894, John Lambert applied for patent 536287, detailing a new igniter actuation design, Figure 11. This patent was granted on March 26, 1895.

Check out future issues of Gas Engine Magazine as this series continues with more on the career of  F.M. Underwood.

Sources: Toledo Critic, February 8, 1902; The Manufacturer and Builder, Oct. 1893, p. 219; Something New Under The Sun – The History of America’s First Car, Carol Jean Lambert; Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide, 1893; American Gas & Gasoline Engines Since 1872, Vol. 1, C.H. Wendel; Iron Trade Review, June 14, 1894; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambert_Gas_and_Gasoline_Engine_Company; and US Patents: 474838, May 17, 1892; 517344, March 27, 1894; 534163, February 12, 1895; 536287, March 26, 1895; 574183, December 29, 1896; 178166, May 30, 1876.


Read more Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 2 and Tracing the Career of Frank M. Underwood Part 3.


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 will.cummings1927@gmail.com.

Published on May 13, 2021

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