Thursday, July 22, 2010

Thursday Review: Arlan Carter's The American Rowboat Motor

Thursday Review: Arlan Carter's The American Rowboat Motor

Many people who went to NFLCC Nationals had a priority "to do" list; sometimes this involved finding a particular lure or reel, meeting a certain collector, etc. My number one priority at the 2010 Knoxville Nationals was to track down Arlan Carter and get a signed copy of his new book The American Rowboat Motor: An Illustrated History and Identification Guide For America's Earliest Outboard Motors (Fall Creek Trading Co., 2010).

This book--the product of over a decade of dedicated research on the subject--is one of the most important books written to date on the subject of fishing and boating history. It chronicles the fascinating subject of "rowboat motors," portable engines designed to power wooden boats.

Carter, author of the seminal book Nineteenth Century Fishing Lures, is certainly on the short list of the best writers on fishing history past or present. This work may actually surpass his earlier book. It is so full of interesting, obscure, and important information that it is almost overwhelming. Every page seems to unleash a new revelation. Not that I considered myself an expert by any means, but I rarely run across a book that has taught me as much as this one has.

It covers outboard motor development from the late nineteenth century until the 1920s, which might be considered the "Golden Age" of rowboat motors. It covers over forty separate companies and includes over 1000 photos of engines, parts, ads, ephemera, and principal individuals. The layout and photography are spectacular and text informative, always stopping to tell the reader what is known and what is not known about certain makers.

Of particular interest to me are the sections on Wisconsin outboards, particularly the Submerged Electric, Evinrude, Koban Manufacturing Company, and Wisconsin Machinery & Manufacturing Company. As I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, one would occasionally see ancient outboards like this in old boat houses. Compared to the newer Mercury and Johnson motors, they always looked so primeval, but when put into their proper historical place they appear much more likes mechanical works of art. The ads themselves are treasures; "Weighs but 50 Pounds" the back cover ad touts for an early Evinrude.

Take as a sample the chapter on Cleveland's Ferro Machine & Foundry Company. An automobile engine maker, they got into the burgeoning outboard motor market in 1914--an inauspicious year if there ever was one. They produced only one model (the Ferro) in two options, which is covered in great detail including minor changes made in its short existence. They even had a great slogan: "Don't go Rowing, go Ferrowing." The motor was discontinued in 1917, likely due to America's entry into the European war.

The only reasonable critique of the book would be that it is far too short. On that subject, I once read a review of Alexander Vucinich's Science in Russian Culture that declared within its voluminous pages were the seeds of a dozen dissertations. The highest compliment I can pay Arlan Carter is that in the pages of The American Rowboat Motor are the seeds of a dozen books. That one day we will look back and say it all began here is all the testament one needs to the importance and influence of The American Rowboat Motor. I cannot recommend it more highly.

Buy this book even if you don't own a single vintage outboard. It is a must read, and any angler's library that purports to have any literary or historical pretenses will be markedly deficient for its absence.

The American Rowboat Motor is a 400-page hardcover and sells for $34.95. It can be ordered directly from the author by Clicking Here.

-- Dr. Todd

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