Alexander Winton

Winton was a leading pioneer in the automobile industry, and his Winton Motor Carriage Company was one of the first American companies to sell automobiles. He also invented the first American diesel engine and the first engines with marine applications.

Born: June 20, 1860; Grangemouth, Stirling, Scotland Died: June 21, 1932; Cleveland, Ohio Primary fields:Automotive technology; manufacturing Primary invention:Automobile components

Early Life

Alexander Winton was born in Grangemouth, Stirling, Scotland, to Alexander and Helen Fea Winton. He was a bright student and demonstrated mechanical talent at an early age. At age nineteen, he immigrated to the United States and worked for the first few years at the Delameter Iron Works in New York and in a factory making marine engines. These experiences gave Winton a practical education that remained with him throughout his life. At about age twenty-three, Winton moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In 1891, Winton received his first patent, for a bicycle, and he organized the Winton Bicycle Company to manufacture his new invention. Although the business was successful, Winton was restless. After five years, he began to turn his attention to the creation of a new mechanical wonder that promised to revolutionize transportation: the automobile. He completed his first motorcar in 1896 and incorporated the Winton Motor Carriage Company in 1897.

Life’s Work

Early automobile makers often tested their new machinery in what were called reliability (or endurance) tests. On July 28, 1897, Winton began the first reliability run in the United States by making a nine-day trip from Cleveland to New York. The trip attracted a great deal of attention and led to a sufficient amount of new investment that allowed Winton to build four new automobiles later that year. In late March, 1898, he sold his first car—believed to be the first automobile sales transaction in the United States for a standard-model gasoline-powered vehicle— to Robert Allison of Port Carbon, Pennsylvania. Allison decided to buy the car after seeing an advertisement in Scientific American magazine. Later that year, Winton sold twenty-one automobiles. One of these was sold to a future competitor, James Packard, whom Winton may have inadvertently pushed into the automobile business. When Packard complained about the performance of the car Winton had sold him, Winton challenged Packard to see whether he could do better. Packard went on to create the Packard automobile, which remained in production until the 1960’s, long after the Winton automobile had ceased to be manufactured.

In 1899, Winton made a second, even better advertised, reliability run from Cleveland to New York, cutting the travel time almost in half by making the trip in just five days. This trip stimulated so much interest that Winton sold more than one hundred cars that year, making his company the largest manufacturer of gasolinepowered automobiles in the United States. This success in turn led Winton to authorize the first automobile dealership in the United States, opened by H. W. Koler in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1899. In 1901, after ten years in the bicycle business while experimenting with automobiles on the side, Winton began to manufacture automobiles full time.

Winton also raced his automobiles. He pitted his cars against the first vehicles produced by Henry Ford, losing to Ford at Grosse Pointe, Michigan, in 1901 and vowing to improve in 1902. For the second match with Ford, Winton created a new vehicle, named the Bullet, which set an unofficial record of 70 miles per hour. Despite this achievement, Winton’s driver was unable to best Ford’s illustrious Barney Oldfield in the 1902 race. Winton built two more Bullet-type racing cars, which also failed to win. Nevertheless, racing remained an important form of advertising for automobile manufacturers.

Winton long worked to make his vehicles durable. In 1903, he cooperated with Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson to stage what was then the ultimate reliability run: a trip across the United States from San Francisco to New York. Jackson and his mechanic made the journey in sixty-four days, which included time for breakdowns and the delivery of repair parts. These exploits enabled Winton to sell his custom-built upscale cars to the wealthy until the 1920’s. These various models included five-passenger touring cars and a large limousine. One version of the limousine used an engine mounted in the middle of the vehicle. Although this design did not become standard for American automobiles, it was an indication of Winton’s willingness to innovate.

Winton diversified, calling on his early training with marine transportation, by creating the Winton Engine Company in 1912 to manufacture marine engines. By 1913, Winton had produced the first diesel engine in the United States. This diversification was important because Winton’s sales of automobiles declined in the 1920’s and the Winton Motor Carriage Company stopped making cars in 1924.

Winton continued to manufacture various engines, including diesel and marine engines, until 1930, when he sold the company to General Motors, which turned it into the Winton Engine Corporation. As such, it created the first practical two-stroke-cycle diesel engines powerful enough to drive diesel locomotives and U.S. Navy submarines. In 1935, the section of the Winton Engine Corporation that made diesel locomotives became a part of the Electro-Motive Corporation, a division of General Motors that was still operating in the early twenty-first century. The remaining portion of the Winton Engine Corporation manufactured almost exclusively Navy, marine, and stationary diesel engines. In 1937, General Motors converted this into the Cleveland Engine Division, which continued operation until 1962.

Winton was married and widowed twice. His first wife, Jeanie Muir McGlashan, bore him six children and died in 1903. Three years later, he married LaBelle McGlashan, with whom he had two more children before her death in 1924. In 1927, he married Marion Campbell, a marriage that ended in divorce in 1930. Finally, he married Mary Ellen Avery in 1930. Winton died in 1932 and was buried in the Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.


Although Winton is not particularly well remembered today, he was a significant American automotive pioneer. With more than one hundred patents in automobile design, he clearly had a large role in the development of cars. Beyond the technical innovations, Winton popularized the industry with his auto racing and his reliability testing. The historic journey of Jackson driving a Winton automobile from San Francisco to New York went a long way toward creating the popular understanding that the automobile was not a toy but had the potential to become a prominent form of transportation. Winton’s diesel engines were ultimately developed into the power plants for Navy warships and the Merchant Marine. Winton also should be credited for taking the first steps toward powering trains with diesel engines.

—Richard L. Wilson

Further Reading

tomotive Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This biography of Chrysler discusses Winton’s contributions to the development of the automobile industry. Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine—Two Centuries of Innovators. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. A general history of innovations that includes useful material on automobile development. Hurst, Robert. The Art of Cycling. Guilford, Conn.: Falcon Press, 2007. Includes a discussion of Winton’s career as a bicycle manufacturer. Langone, John. How Things Work: Everyday Technology Explained. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004. Provides clear explanations of how many major inventions work. Includes a section on automobile technology. McConnell, Curt. Coast to Coast by Automobile: The

Pioneering Trips, 1899-1908. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Winton and his contribution to the early automobile industry feature prominently in this account of the development of the automobile. Saal, Thomas F., and Bernard Golias. Famous but Forgotten: The Story of Alexander Winton. Twinsburg, Ohio: Golias, 1997. The only full-length biography of Winton available. Contains a wealth of information. Smil, Vaclav. Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Smil examines the period in which key inventions of the modern world, such as the internal combustion engine, were developed. Winton is discussed. Tedlow, Richard S. Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business

Innovators and the Empires They Built. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Contains a useful discussion on Henry Ford (one of the seven featured innovators) and Alexander Winton. Wager, Richard. Golden Wheels: The Story of the Automobiles Made in Cleveland and Northeastern Ohio, 1892-1932. 2d ed. Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1986. Winton and his automobiles figure prominently in this specialized history of early automobile technology.

Clymer, Floyd. Treasury of Early American Automobiles, 1877-1925. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950. Describes the Winton automobile in some detail and the interesting historical setting in which it developed. Curcio, Vincent. Chrysler: The Life and Times of an AuSee also: Carl Benz; Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot; Gottlieb Daimler; Rudolf Diesel; John Boyd Dunlop; Henry Ford; Hiram Percy Maxim; André and Édouard Michelin; Ransom Eli Olds; Sylvester Roper; Felix Wankel.

Life’s Work

In 1872, Woods began working as a fireman on the Iron Mountain Railroad in Missouri. He eventually became an engineer for that company. In his spare time, he studied electronics and experimented with electricity. In 1874, Woods moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked in a steel rolling mill. In 1876, he moved eastward, worked six half-days in a machine shop, and took college courses in electrical and mechanical engineering during afternoons and evenings. In 1878, Woods took a job aboard the British steamer Ironsides, sailing around the world and ultimately becoming chief engineer of the steamer. Two years later, he obtained employment as a conductor of a steam locomotive with Danville and Southern Railroad. In spite of his increased education and experience, he was denied opportunities and promotions because of racial prejudice. He eventually realized that in order to successfully utilize his talents to the fullest, he would have to be self-employed.

Woods settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1881. Three


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