Book Review: The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins

| May/June 1999

The Cummins Engine Company of Columbus, Indiana, is probably well known to many of our readers. In this nearly 400-page book, the founder's son tells the fascinating and personal tale of the life of his father and the company he founded.

It all began curiously enough when young Clessie Cummins, a man with great mechanical talent, took a job as a chauffeur with the wealthy W. G. Irwin family in Columbus. This was the beginning of the long term, symbiotic relationship which led to the formation of the engine company, its ultimate growth and success.

The story is a fascinating one, moving as it does from the early teens of this century, up to Cummins death in August of 1968. First hand reports of some marvelous 'engine adventures' include several Indy 500 races with race cars fitted with Cummins diesels, speed records broken at Daytona; a 1931 cross country trip in the first diesel-powered truck; a non-stop 14,600 mile truck trip around the Indianapolis Speedway; a cross-country trip in a diesel powered bus, and more. Tales from a promotional trip to Europe provide more adventure.

For the technically astute, there are numerous discussions of the actual inventions, and improvements, with sketches and detailed explanations in a historical context.

Many details of the company history are included, the plants, the additions, the acquisitions and new buildings as the company grew, and sold engines for numerous applications throughout the world.

Underlying the entire tale, are detailed insights provided by extensive personal correspondence and anecdotes. The relationship of the inventor and his investors are explored in detail. And while the Cummins Engine Company did not always best serve both the interests of inventor and investors, it did a fine job of serving the community of Columbus, Indiana, regardless. For, while the primary mission of the Company was to produce the finest, most perfect engine possible, it is refreshing to read some of Cummins' words in describing other corporate values in his draft of a company policy:

'The second major point of policy is that of training and developing of the man power of the community. It has always been our aim and desire to pick out the best talent and train it to the best of our ability, not only mechanics, but as God-fearing, useful citizens in the community. To accomplish this, a third policy automatically becomes necessary--a non-paternal, but very earnest interest must be taken in the affairs of the employees. We fully appreciate the responsibility we have for these men, and it is our aim and wish that the business be so managed that we will never kick out the used up or broken wrecks onto society, as has been practiced by some industries in the past.'

This book gives a window into the mind of a great inventor--his hobbies, such as gun collecting and boating, his 'retirements' to Florida, then California, his family life. There are, as well, intriguing mentions of numerous Cummins 'firsts,' such as the 1930 demonstration of an Allis-Chalmers crawler with a 60 bhp model U Cummins engine.

In addition, we hear about the many individuals who worked closely with Cummins at the company, and those elsewhere in the field whose work influenced him and whose advice he sometimes followed.

The book has been written by Cummins' youngest son, Lyle, who had a unique opportunity to work with his father as an engineer late in Clessie's life. Fortunately, a great deal of material was available to him, particularly in the form of personal correspondence, giving the reader a very precise idea of how Cummins himself saw things. Clessie himself was extremely articulate, and forthright in expression.

The footnotes are extensive, and often fascinating as well!

The hardback book has 25 drawings, and 110 glossy photos. It can be ordered from Carnot Press, PO Box 1544, Lake Oswego, Oregon 97035, for $37.00 plus $2.00 postpaid. We recommend it!

Linda Weidman


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