MMIM Hall of Fame

Dr. John Wesley Carhart

   John Wesley Carhart was born to Daniel Sutton Carhart, and his wife Margaret (nee Martin), on the 26th of June, 1834. The small town of Coeymans, on the banks of the Hudson River, south of Albany City, Albany county, New York, was their home. It is said he possessed an “inventive nature” and when he was a boy he made his own miniature steam yacht which he sailed on the Hudson River.

Minister of the Church

   After his basic education at the local common schools Carhart converted to Methodism and joined the church at the age of thirteen. It is believed he did labouring work on farms to pay for his education, J.W. later wrote that the extremes of tiredness brought about by such work.....

“produced depression of spirits until the habit of melancholy fixed upon me, to some extent, against which I have been obliged to contend all my life”.

   He went on to attend the new Seminary in Charlotteville, Schoharie county, New York and joined the Methodist ‘Troy Conference’ in 1855. As an active minister on the church circuits held went on to hold some of the most important appointments in the Conference. In 1861, aged 27 years, Carhart received a Doctor of Divinity degree and was ordained as a Methodist minister. He was a member of the Troy Conference for 17 and a half years during which time he was Minister at Richmond, New York, which is where he met his wife to be, Theresa A. Mumford. They Married in1857 and in due course they had eight children, although one died in infancy. He also had church positions in Vermont, Massachusetts, before moving to Wisconsin, and holding the position of Pastor of "The First Methodist Episcopal Church” in Racine from 1871. It is reported that Dr. Carhart preached fervently against alcohol and tobacco which ruffled some feathers amongst congregations and may be a reason that the Carhart family seems to have moved between churches quite a lot.

   His fascination with engineering wasn’t forgotten though and it is said the Dr. Carhart perfected an oscillating valve for steam engines in 1865. He refers to it in his autobiography saying:-

“I always had an irrepressible passion for mechanics, and during my stay in Troy I accidentally invented, and subsequently perfected, an invention in the form of an oscillating valve for steam engines, which I patented and out of which I made a few thousand dollars.”

   Carhart was also awarded a patent in 1869, in conjunction with Thomas Huckans, for a needle protector for sewing machines. It seems J.W. never had the business knowledge to profit from his inventions or patents; perhaps he was just too much a gentleman for the world of business. Attempting to support a wife and eight children must have been a financial struggle requiring him to take any extra work he could get. During these years Dr. Carhart wrote several books, notably a book of poems called “Sunny Hours” published in 1859 a more historical work “Poets and Poetry of the Hebrews” published in 1865. He wrote religious song lyrics and biographies as well as working as an insurance agent for a while. In Racine he took on extra work with the Racine Temperance Society.

   The move to Racine led to appointment as pastor of The First Methodist Episcopal Church a position Carhart held for three years. It was quite an honour as the original Church, built in 1854 and capable of holding 300 people, and enlarged again in 1856, had recently been closed and a new church building, “one of the finest and most commodious buildings in the city”, with a capacity of up to 800 people, was dedicated the 16th of July, 1871. He became Presiding Elder of the Appleton district and held that post for four years. Two life changing events were to come Carhart’s way in close succession. Firstly an uncomfortably personal difficulty occurred between J.W. and another member of the Conference, Rev. Geo. C. Haddock. Today we might call it a ‘clash of personalities’ but whatever you call it J.W. Carhart was laid very low by it. He later wrote:-

“In 1871 I was a resident of Racine, Wisconsin and suffered from a long siege of fever”.

This was to bring about the other event which Dr. Carhart goes on to explain the second change thus:-

“When I began to convalesce I thought much about the steam buggy matter, and for amusement during my long enforced leisure I sketched the outlines; and as my brother, Professor H.S. Carhart, now emeritus professor of physics in the University of Michigan, was stopping with me for a time, and being skilled in mechanical drawing, he made the working drawings of my engines and some other parts of the mechanism. A wealthy citizen of Racine, seeing the drawings, offered to furnish the money to build the vehicle; and accordingly the patterns and many of the parts were made in the shops of the well known J.T. Case Threshing Machine Co. of that City. The principle part of the vehicle was built in our own shop; our lathes being operated by a pony tread power. The steam boiler was made by the Button Steam Fire Engine factory in Waterford, N.Y., after special design, the drawings of which I still have.”

   The “wealthy citizen of Racine” who provided finance for this project is said to be a local lumber merchant, a very wealthy gentleman by the name of George W. Slausen.

 The “Spark”

   Dr. Carhart and his brother worked to perfect this steam-powered automobile for two years. The vehicle is described as a two-cylinder steam buggy but Doctor Carhart gave a good description of the machine himself in some letters written in 1914. He describes his machine, dubbed “Spark”, in the following terms:-

“There were two reciprocating engines attached to the boiler, which was upright and in the rear of the seat, each engine independently propelling a drive wheel, thus, doing away with differential gears. The steering was done by lever and chains, attached to the front axle which turned on a fifth wheel, buggy- fashion.”

“As liquid fuel was then unknown, I used hard coal for fuel, and I carried it under the seat, having a chute from the front into the door of the boiler fire box. With a jointed poker it was easy to fire the machine. Water was carried in tanks appropriately located. The boiler was furnished with a whistle, steam-gauge, and a safety valve and was capable of carrying a pressure of 300 pounds to the square inch, although I generally ran with about 120 pounds. The whole affair weighed in 1,100pounds.” 

   “Spark” proved substantially successful in that it ran, was steerable and reasonably controllable. In it’s May 7th issue the Racine (Wisconsin) Journal’ reported on the first outing of the “Spark”. Dr. Carhart and one of his sons had taken to the streets of Racine on Market day and astounded the local populace. Once again Dr Carhart himself gives us an insight into the scenes:- 

“My First appearance on the streets of Racine was fantastic and exciting. My engines exhausted their steam directly into a smoke stack, and the exhaust not being rhythmical, the noise was hideous and the steam and smoke from the stack really alarming. No need for traffic police, for man or beast.”

"The noise of the exhaust, which escaped through the stack and which shot smoke and cinders fully 15 feet into the air, was terrific and startling. Of course, the steam whistle with which it was equipped did nothing to make matters any better. In fact, it was not long before we had all the streets in the town to ourselves, for when they had seen the machine, all the citizens were unanimous in predicting that the thing would blow up."

   The machine certainly had an impact, although perhaps not that which the good Doctor had intended. Apparently this inaugural run of “Spark” had terrified townspeople running in all directions, most convinced that the "infernal machine" was about to blow up! The hideous noise of the contraption was not at all welcome and the citizens threatened to run Carhart out of town. It seems that Dr. Carhart himself concurred with their opinion but years later tried to reason that:-

"It must be remembered that at the time there was no liquid fuel, ball bearings or rubber tires."

   After the machine reportedly caused the death of a valuable horse Carhart bowed to pressure from the locals and dismantled ‘Spark’, even though it was supposed to be exhibited a little while later at the Racine County Fair. “Spark” was officially banned from the streets of Racine on the 20th of October 1873.

   However, the steam automobile had run so successfully that it attracted the attention of the Wisconsin secretary of state. He championed and idea at the legislature and constituted a great deal of stimulus to the state’s interest, until, in 1875 a $10,000 award was put on offer to the first person with an “Invention and production of a machine propelled by steam or other agent which shall be a cheap and practical substitute for the horse and other animals on the highways and farms”. It was stipulated that the machine must also be able to maintain an average speed of more than 5mph over 200miles and be able to run backwards and forwards as well as turn out of the way of other road users. The State of Wisconsin prize of $10,000 is something approaching $1m in today's money.

   On the 16th of July, 1878, a challenge, organised by the Wisconsin State, was held. Starting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and ending in Madison, via Appleton, Oshkosh, Waupun, Watertown, Fort Atkinson, and Janesville; a journey from one end of Wisconsin to the other, and a distance of over 200 miles. 7 vehicles were entered for the challenge but only two actually took the start. An entry from Green Bay was the fastest of the pair but it broke down leaving an entry from Oshkosh to win the challenge. This event is now said to be the first ‘race’ in the United States but in true keeping with motor sport all over the world the technicalities didn’t appear to be met and amid much controversy only half of the prize money was awarded; in 1879; and after a lot of legal wrangling!

   The Oshkosh machine took 33 hours and 27 minutes to cover the 201 mile course setting an average speed of 6mph. It is said that the vehicle was designed by J. W. Carhart, some even say it was the same vehicle as had run in Racine in 1873. Comparing photographs soon dispels that myth as the vehicles share but a few similarities, the possibility of it being designed along the lines of “Spark” are possible.

   What really matters is that Wisconsin was becoming a major state for self propelled vehicle technology and when gasoline powered engines became more common place Thomas L. Jeffery built a car plant at Kenosha and by 1902 was producing 1,500 ‘Ramblers’ a year. In 1916 this business was sold to Charles W. Nash and he quickly made it the biggest US car production plant outside of Detroit.

Church Ministry ends

   Carhart’s position as pastor and his work with the Temperance Society helped to convict a leading druggist in 1871, and ultimately led to a move to Oshkosh in 1874. The Rev. Dr. Haddock, took over as Minister in Racine. 

   At this time Dr. Carhart’s children set up a bookstore and print shop in the Oshkosh church basement from which they published a weekly newsletter; “The Early Dawn”. Dr Carhart had an office at the store and wrote a column for the newspaper. It is thought that Carhart used the engine from the ‘Spark’ to power the printing press. This press was also used to print the first issues of “the Clarendon news”. Clarendon was a colony in Texas set up by Dr. Carhart’s cousin, Lewis H. Carhart, and he sent the proofs to J.W. to be printed. The paper was such a success that it wasn’t long before Dr. Carhart, at his cousins request, sent his son, Edward Elmer Carhart, to set up the settlement's first press in Clarendon.

   In J.W. Carhart’s religious circles things didn’t seem to improve much. Trouble seemed to follow J.W. again and some financial wrangling over books and a deal with the church in Oshkosh to move into a larger venue also fell foul on monetary grounds leading to Dr. Carhart being expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church Wisconsin Conference in 1880; He was reinstated upon appeal but with the dissension amongst members of the Wisconsin conference he resigned from the ministry that same year.

   As it happens after much investigation and discussion Dr. Carhart was thoroughly vindicated and Dr. Haddock, who is thought to be at the centre of these issues, was assassinated on the streets of Sioux City, Iowa. Years later Dr. Carhart was repeatedly, and eagerly, invited to return to the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He had since transferred his allegiances to the Presbyterian Church and became a ruling member of that Chuch movement, in due course moving on to be a Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, he always declined to return to the Racine Methodist church.

A New Doctorship

   Having resigned from the Methodist Church in 1880 J.W. Carhart thought his working life to be at an end. He therefore set about writing his autobiography which he chose to title “Four Years on Wheels” suggesting that this period had been of major importance to him. But he also renewed his interest in another area of study. While pastoring in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he thought on the subject of medicine and studied for a semester at Berkshire Medical College. From there he moved on to study at of the Chicago College of Physicians and was one of the establishment’s first graduating class on the 13th of March, 1883. Now a Medical Doctor as well as a Doctor of Divinity J.W. Carhart returned to Oshkosh where he practiced as an M.D. for a little while.

   In late 1883 Dr. J. W. Carhart moved out to Texas to be closer to his son and cousin, most of the rest of his family went out there also though some of the elder children chose to stay at home in Wisconsin. After a brief stay in Clarendon J.W. Carhart moved on to Lampasas, in 1884, where he set up a weekly newspaper, “the Lampasas Teacher”. Carhart also wrote for another Lampassas paper called “the Leader” in a serial he called “The sign rider".

   However, Dr. Carharts religious personality meant that writing wasn’t doing enough for other people and he set himself to Medicine whole heartedly. After taking an additional course of instruction at the New York Poly-clinic J.W. established practices in Lampasas, then La Grange, Austin, and San Antonio; while working as a general practitioner, with special interest in the diseases of women and children, he became one of the foremost specialists in skin and nervous system problems. He championed a number of causes that now seem common sense to us but 120 years ago needed to be said.  He believed it was not right to treat children, medically speaking, in the same way as adults; and to have a healthy child treatment needed to begin before birth. Doctors also had to be reminded they had a moral responsibility to always give their best care regardless of the patients status’ or ability to pay, that medications should be prescribed according to their effectiveness not their price and above all Doctor’s should always put the patient ahead of their own monetary gains. Most obvious but now but not regarded as such back then was his statement that a Doctor who was not a mental health specialist was not qualified to present evidence in criminal trials stemming from “lunacy”, a point now clearly understood and abided by.

   In 1991 his Father, Daniel Sutton Carhart died at the age of 81, but this didn’t slow Dr. Carhart down. He represented Texas at the American Medical Association meetings in 1891. J.W. also became vociferous spokesman for better public sanitation practices and in 1893 was one of ten assistant secretaries general at the first Pan American Medical Congress in Washington, D.C. apparently the greatest gathering of medical men ever held in the U.S. and having representatives of almost every country in the Western Hemisphere in attendance. Continuing to do medicine full time and write medical articles and works of fiction Dr. Carhart also continued his interest in automobiles. He eventually produced a peculiar mix of articles and inventions that suggest he might have been a very complex person to live with. 

   His first work of fiction was published anonymously in 1879, “Mina Harding” is thought by some to be his best work but it isn’t as well remembered as some of his other prose; though they are remembered for differing reasons. 

   Dr. Carhart’s best medical paper, entitled Tyrotoxicon and Peptotoxine was read before the Texas State Medical Association at San Antonio , April, 1889, and published the same year in the “Transactions”. Sounds very clever and professional to me suggesting J.W. studied hard. A medical paper that gives and insight into J.W.’s personality is “The Clinical Thermometer”, published in 1889. Dr Carhart is clearly enthusiastic about developments in scientific medicine but in his discussion of the risks and benefits of thermometers he also reveals other doctors’ ambivalence to technologies we now take for granted. He is most concerned at what could be lost from the Dr’s arsenal if he were to rely simply on numbers put out by a measuring device. He then went on to explain how the thermometer could be a useful tool if integrated into clinical practice in a thoughtful way, effectively setting out guidelines which would be used for decades to come.

   His wife died in 1894 but again Carhart kept himself busy with his many interests and writing. Many medical papers were published over the years. But when “Norma Trist” was published in 1895 it caused an uproar! The novel was one of the first books published in the United States to approach the subject of homosexuality. It was a story about an "alienist" (psychiatrist) attempting to cure a woman of her love for another woman. Homosexuality was not an acceptable thing to talk about in public life and certainly not to be written about, the ordinary folks had little interest in whether homosexuality was caused by nature or nurture. The book was highly moralistic but the still horrified the reading public. As the copies went on sale around the country Dr. Carhart was arrested for "sending obscene literature through the mail"! Dr. Carhart got around that by selling his books from a boxcar until the case against him was dismissed, but it shows not only that he had courage to make people think but also that he had consideration for people struggling with mental illness and other social stigmas at a time when few people thought in such terms.

   Dr. Carhart continued to turn out newspaper stories and professional medical articles for many years and his last novel, published in 1899, “Under Palmetto and Pine” once again showed a sensitive and courageous personality when he deals with the poverty, racial discrimination and treatment of African Americans in Texas. 

Later years
   Dr. Carhart always kept busy despite his advancing years and joined ‘the Texas State Historical Society’ around 1897. The sharing and giving of knowledge may well have added to the base of his last novel. Dr. Carhart married again in 1899. In a ceremony in Fayette County Mollie McGregor Cole became Mrs M.C. Carhart, she passed away in 1906 leaving him alone again.
   In 1903 the magazine “Horseless Age” called Carhart the "father of the automobile", something which was reiterated in 1908 when Dr. Carhart attended that years International Automobile Exposition in Paris as a guest of the French government. Dr. Carhart was not only addressed as the "Father of Automobiles" but presented with a certificate of honour and a cash award for his invention of a steam car.
   If inventing a steam automobile, saving lives and writing courageous, sensitive novels wasn’t enough to cement his position in history then Dr. Carhart added a few more items for good measure. In 1907 U.S. Patent 854,463 was issued to him on the 21st of May for a "Laminated automobile Tire", a product which he followed up in 1910 with another patent for a "Vehicle-Tire", U.S. Patent 959,457 issued on the 31st of May 1910.
   Even in his last years he was involved in things that would benefit others. In 1912 Dr. Carhart was involved in the beginnings of the San Antonio Art League. He even acted as chair at the first organizational meetings.


   Dr. J.W. Carhart past away in San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas, on the 21st of December, 1914. He was laid to rest on the 23rd of December, 1914, at Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, Travis County, Texas, USA. An interesting note is that his Death Certificate records his date of birth as the 16th of June, 1828, but as J.W. himself records his birthday as 26th of June in his autobiography "Four Years on Wheels" I think we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.


   "The Day Book" newspaper of Chicago, Illinois ran an article on J.W. Carhart the day after his death, in it they say he was known as the "father of the automobile," having invented first machine of that kind’.

   An Historic Marker was erected in 1957 on highway 11 outside Racine, Racine County, stating:-

The Spark 

In 1873 the Rev. Dr. J. W. Carhart of Racine designed and operated the first light self- propelled highway vehicle in the United States and probably the first in the world. He named it "the Spark." It was driven by a two-cylinder steam engine, steered by a lever, and had a speed of five miles per hour. When his "infernal machine" first appeared the hideous noise created by its operation caused the peo­ple of Racine to threaten to run Carhart out of town. Carhart seems to have agreed with the general opinion of his invention but added, "It must be remembered that at the time there was no liquid fuel, ball bearings or rubber tires. At the International Automobile Exhibition held in Paris, France, Carhart was addressed as the “Father of Automobiles” and received a cash award and a certificate of honor fro his invention".

   The Wisconsin Chapter of the Society of Automotive Historians acknowledges Dr. J.W. Carhart in it’s logo by laying a silhouette, drawn from an early photograph, within an outline of Wisconsin state boarder. They also proudly tell everyone just what the significance of their logo.

   The claim that “Spark” was the “first automobile in America, even in the world” might, with our hindsight, seem grandiose and is certainly erroneous, but back in the early 1870’s it is unlikely many people were aware of all the works across the rest of America never mind in Europe. Siegfried Marcus had already run a carriage with a gas engine in Europe, a steam carriage was driven as part of a circus promotion in Chicago as early as 1864 and George Alexander Long had also run a steam wagon in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, USA; and this is without mentioning the work of steam specialists in the United Kingdom and France who had run regular steam omnibus routes back in the 1820s. Dr. Carhart did allude to this himself in his letters of 1914 when he said:-
“Other heavier twenty horsepower machines had been tried in England 100 years before, but mine was the first light self-propelled road vehicle in the United States and probably in the world”.
   However, it now seems clear that this was the first automobile in Wisconsin, and, while steam cars had been built in America since the mid 1850s they were all like miniature locomotives rather than practical road going vehicles. Years later Carhart's invention was recognized as a forerunner of the automobile by the ‘American Manufacturers' Association’ and Carhart’s design was much closer to something that could run on the highways and farms of America. It stimulated not only automotive tractor and agricultural firms like Oshkosh and Case but influenced legislation at state level to promote automotive transport and farm vehicles; Wisconsin was probably the first and only government in the world to pay money as a premium for the development of the auto and tractor industry.
   The effect of this was to make Wisconsin a foremost State in this area and, as we have already said, Rambler and Nash both had plants in Wisconsin too. Madison became a mecca for automotive inventor’s and the Central Wisconsin Automobile show in the Four Lakes Ordnance building displayed the all the latest developments in the motor world. 
   Dr. J.W. Carhart clearly deserves to be mentioned amongst the first inventors of the self-propelled road vehicles and also amongst those who have influenced legislature for automobiles; and for being a courageous man who has served the ordinary people as a doctor and minister of the Chuch.

   I’d say he was a man to look up to.