The Lawn Sprinkler Inventor

Tonight’s story is about an inventor like the other stories I’ve told. W.O. Bentley was a wonderful engine builder; aircraft engines, automobile engines. But he couldn’t run a company for crap, and went out of business. Our own beloved Colin Chapman-terrific inventor, couldn’t run a company. Terrible person to work for. When you’re a creative kind of a person. Remember Shebler and his float for the carburetor. He could’ve been part of Borg-Warner. But he said, “Na, I’ll take the money.” He went and bought a farm and went back to a farm where he started. Because that’s just the kind of people inventors are. And this is another one like that. So we’ll see what happens to this guy. It’s because he’s an inventor, not a business man.

This fellow named David D was born in Scotland, September 17, 1854. He Immigrated to the U.S. with his family two years later. His father died when he was very young. At 15 years of age, Dave left school and went to work for a plumbing supply company.

That doesn’t sound very associated with automobiles but we’ll get to that. The plumbing supply business was booming. Someone had finally perfected the flush toilet. Everyone with running water was wanting one of these new fangled devices, which by the way was not invented by Thomas Crapper, as the legend says. Anyway, they were selling big time. As a 15 year old, he started there just as a clerk. He went to night school and got some training in machine skills; lathe, mill, so forth. He kept working for this company.

Now people with pressurized water had some lawns and were complaining about having trouble keeping up the lawns. Our buddy Dave says, “Why don’t we make a lawn sprinkler?” Well our talk tonight is about the man who invented the first lawn sprinkler. Dave figured out how to make this thing go and water the grass. It sold big time. He then subsequently invented some other things. However, at that time, bath tubs were still big, showers weren’t that big. The rich people had ceramic, beautiful porcelain kind of tubs. The poor folks, the average guys, either had cast iron bathtubs or galvanized tubs. They were kind of ugly, but they were durable. So old Dave here said, “If there is some way I could bind that ceramic to cast iron then we would have the beauty of the ceramic and the strength of the cast iron”. But it had never been done. He figured out how to do it. So now we have a guy that invents the lawn sprinkler. Now he invents a system to bond this vitreous enamel to cast iron. He’s still in the plumbing business.

Years go by, getting into the late 1890’s. Automobiles are putzing around. Most of them are single cylinder. Dave says, “I‘m going to start making engines.” He got a lot more interested in building engines then he was building toilets and bathtubs and this sort of thing. So in 1901 he says, “Forget about the plumbing business . I’m going to just build engines.” His engines were for stationary water pumping and similar industrial applications. But he was also interested in an engine for a car. So, in 1901 Dave built exactly one car. He formed a company called Vim and Power company and he made one car. Pretty shabby looking car, actually. It was a single cylinder but at least it ran.

In 1902, he’s still fooling with this engine. He’s got this one car built. But he says, “You know, they’re all flat head engines.I’m thinking the air has to go up, out of the block, over, down into the cylinder, come back up, out, and in the exhaust. Wouldn’t it make sense if we put the valves in the head, so the ingest comes down onto the piston? When the piston comes up, it goes out again.” And our friend with the lawn sprinkler and bathtubs, patents the first overhead valve engine in this country. Now he’s got an overhead valve engine. It’s 1902, but he’s run out of money.

In 1903, right in that same industrial complex was a guy named Benjamin Briscoe with a sheet metal company. He says, “Hey, how about I take this crummy looking car you got here and put some sheet metal on it. The sheet metal company bought Dave’s business in 1903. Well Briscoe wasn’t big into cars, but it was a helpless kind of fun.

Now there was another fellow named James Whiting nearby that ran a buggy and carriage company. He sees this funny little car with the sheetmetal on it. He says, “Hey, I have a carriage. I have springs. I have a steering mechanism.” So he offered this fellow Briscoe who had bought Dave’s company to give him some money so he could keep developing this overhead valve engine. He got that and said, “Hey I got these carriages.” 

Don’t laugh at that. Studebaker was at one time the largest carriage and buggy builder in the world. So, it was common to have a buggy, but instead of a horse pulling it, well just throw an engine in there. Well Dave had this overhead valve engine. So Briscoe said, “Hey, I can flip my money in one year.” So, he sold the company to the carriage company.

So now here’s Dave. He had his own company in 1901 and now he’s sold to the sheet metal company. The sheet metal company sells it to the carriage builder, but it’s getting better all the time.

In 1904, the carriage builder makes 37 cars and they are really quite refined. This caught the attention of another guy who came to the carriage builder. Now you have to remember that carriages are out selling cars about 1000 to 1. So the guy who is building carriages doesn’t give diddly-do about the cars really. So he says to this guy, “Look, you have to buy your engine from one people, you have to buy your springs from another person, etc to get this carriage built. Why don’t you just let me buy it. I’ve got this big company. I can cast the engine here. I can get the springs. I can put the whole car together. Let me buy your company. So the carriage builder sold his stuff to this guy. That started in 1905.

Well, now Dave’s not happy but he stayed with the company for about another 4 years. In 1909, he left the car business. In 1909, according to my research, either he still had stock in his basic company or it was a severance pay. I really don’t know which. Well at that time he fooled around with some odds and ends, but that’s really the end of the story as far as his car business.

He took the money he had and invested it in oil. It had just been discovered in California. But due to some false advertising on someone he hired and problems with getting oil he lost almost all of his money he got from the car business. What little bit he had left, he put into some real estate in Florida which turned out to be a swamp or something. He lost all of his money there.

By the mid teens, he had long since disappeared from sight. But come 1927, a fellow by the name of Bruce Catton, who was a biographer and historian noticed all of this things that Dave had invented. He thought Dave would make an interesting story. He tried to find him. Looked all over, couldn’t find him for months.  Finally he did find him. He was instructor at a little trade school outside Detroit making just barely enough money for food and a one room flat. Not even enough money for a telephone. Bruce Catton sat down and got his story and much of what I’m telling you here tonight he got from Dave in 1927.

Unfortunately, March 5, 1929, Dave died. The obituary was written and it outlined his life and said at one time had had sipped from the cup of greatness when you think of all the stuff he had done. But when he died all he left to the world was his name on a car. Folks, as of 2017, there will have been over 35 million cars with Dave’s name on it. Because his full name was David Dunbar Buick.

The sad postscript is that on the 25th anniversary of the Buick company, General Motors held a big celebration. They did not even invite Dave. On the night of the celebration, he was alone in his apartment.

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