Inventors of Portage County: By land, sea and sky, Portagers changed travel

Welcome to the second installment of Inventors of Portage County. This edition will focus on men who made their mark on travel: air, land and water. Without them, we’d not have the reverse gear on our outboard motors, and planes would be grounded the minute temperatures fall.

Rails first:

Plimmon Henry H. Dudley

A Freedom native named Plimmon Henry H. Dudley gained a patent for what he called a rail section in 1890. He’d noticed that rails wore out more quickly along the curved parts of railroad tracks and came up with a very technical solution.

Born in 1843, he was a graduate of Hiram College. He worked as a civil engineer for the city of Akron, and then as an engineer for the Valley Railroad, later part of B&O Railroad. Dudley also worked for the New York Central Railroad for years.

Railroads, it seems, were Dudley’s life. He lived in a railroad car with his wife, Lucy Bronson, for 21 years as the pair traveled some 300,000 miles across the U.S. and Canada. Their rolling home was half laboratory and half home, replete with a kitchen, dining room, double bed, library and piano.

Dudley’s got numerous patents for railroad safety: a dynograph that detected track irregularities and a strematograph, which measured stress on the rails of passing trains. He also designed the first five-inch steel rails used in the U.S.

On the water:

Boaters have Herbert H. Simshauser of Ravenna to thank for the reverse gear on their outboard motors. Born in Nebraska in 1905, Simshauser moved east, where he settled in Ravenna and gained employment as a machinist at Warner Machine in Kent.

Simshauser’s variable pitch boat propeller, patented in 1960, allowed boats with small motors to back up. With two speeds, the boats wouldn’t stall, either. Simshouser’s other patents include an improved anchor (1955) and a machine for crushing cans, bottles and the like (1967).

… And under it:

Alvin submarine. Photo via NOAA

Allyn Collins Vine, born in 1914 in Garrettsville, gained a patent in 1951 for a submersible diving machine called Alvin: a combination of his first and last names.

Reaching to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Alvin was the first manned submersible for deep diving and scientific research. Alvin reached the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. It has undergone upgrades over the years, but remains in use today.

Vine also developed new techniques and equipment for oceanographic study, designing a machine the U.S. Navy used to help hide from sonar.

In the air:

William Geer, a chemist and eventual vice president of research for Akron’s B.F. Goodrich Co., came up with the idea of de-icing planes in the 1920s, but Russell Sidney Colley of Kent made the idea work in the 1930s. His patent for de-icing aircraft wings, awarded in 1940, is officially dubbed a surface protective apparatus.

That’s not all: Colley developed pressure suits for U.S. Navy pilots, was on “What’s My Line?” in 1959, worked on suits for astronauts and made gloves for John Glenn’s space flight. All in all, Colley’s credited with more than 65 patents. He died in 1996 in Clark County, Ohio.

And on the road:

Richard J. Matt, who graduated from Kent’s Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1947, was serving in the U.S. Army in 1955. He came up with the very first seat belt, a contraption that anchored drivers to their seats by means of a strap that crossed horizontally under the arms and across the chest. Full disclosure: Matt’s is the second name on the patent. The first is Arthur W. Bull, who had no local connection.

Matt sold his design to the United States Rubber Co. in New York, but the concept was flawed. Drivers in accidents still found their bottoms jettisoned forward, with predictable consequences.

In 1959, the Volvo Car Corporation developed the three-point seatbelt, and released it to all car manufacturers. Volvo’s design, created by their engineer Nils Bohlin, was the industry standard by 1968.

Drivers of vehicles with dual axles just turn the steering wheel and trust that the wheels will follow suit. It wasn’t always so. Until Dwight E. Austin of Kent came up with a steerable dual wheel mounting on a vehicle axle, the wheels would rub together as they turned. Not great for mobility or safety.

Austin had his own firm, Dwight Austin Products, in Kent, where he manufactured railroad seats and steel and aluminum products. He either worked for or sold his steerable dual wheel mounting invention to Twin Coach, which was assigned the patent in 1948.

A smooth ride is a good thing. Walter L. Luli of Kent, born in 1911, grew up to serve as chief engineer for White Motor Corporation’s bus company. He not only designed components, but invented the Velvet Ride vehicle frame that kept drivers and passengers from feeling many bumps and dips.

Since Luli was an employee, White Motor holds the vehicle frame patent to this day. Luli died in 1974.

Henry Ralph Rick of Kent was a traveling salesman for the casket industry in 1930. Noticing that wooden guardrails would split and the posts would break when cars hit them, in 1931, he came up with a flexible metal design that bounced unfortunate vehicles back onto the road without their occupants being skewered.

Thanks to Barb Petroski, president of the Portage County chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, for providing this information. If anyone knows of any other inventors who were born in or lived in Portage County, let us know. The only rule is they must have a patent for the invention in their name.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment of this series, when we’ll focus on home conveniences and fencing.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.