February 11 is National Inventors’ Day—an occasion that honors inventors of the past, the creators of the present, and encourages the architects of the future. There are many inventors, makers and innovators driving our world, but few make such a mark as the Dodge Brothers.
John and Horace Dodge were inventors of the first caliber and helped put America on wheels during the early days of automotive manufacturing.
Born to Invent
Born to a humble family in Niles, Michigan, the brothers brought an incredible talent, skill and dedication to their craft. In the beginning, the brothers created a ball bearing bicycle, the Evans & Dodge Bicycle. They specialized in machine shop precision part-making and worked on typewriters and bicycles before automobiles. At every turn, they focused on innovation and quality.
Their two minds worked in concert with each other, with Horace building and John refining. Both had the ability to look at the big picture without losing sight of the critical details that made the difference in a product that was good enough, and one that had the Dodge Brothers’ names on it.
The brothers spent their early years building their engineering skills and first businesses, working towards a big break. It came when they honed in on the automotive industry. John and Horace began manufacturing and supplying parts to Ransom E. Olds – of “Oldsmobile” – and began a valuable and occasionally tempestuous relationship with Henry Ford.
It wasn’t long before the Dodge Brothers became the primary parts supplier to the Ford Motor Car Company, supplying virtually all parts of Ford car chassis, except the body, wheels and tires. From 1903-1914, the Dodge brothers would produce some 60% of the total value of Ford cars, and often help to improve the parts. This arrangement was very lucrative to the Dodges, who made most of their money through stock dividends and parts sales.
The Dodge Brothers spent 11 years in this role, but by 1914, they were ready to give the public something distinctive: the first Dodge automobile.
Paving New Ground
The Dodge Brothers focused on innovation and quality above all else, and the four-cylinder Dodge Model 30-35 Touring Car included unique features that became the standard, such as the speedometer, first all-steel body and an electric ignition system. They built a special proving grounds onsite at their factory, which is believed to be the first-known instance of this practice. Each car that came off the line went up and down the wooden hill and through a sand pit before final inspection.
By 1920, the Dodge brothers had tripled the size of their plant to 3.3 million square feet, produced nearly 425,000 automobiles and employed 20,000 workers. They were the second-largest automobile manufacturer in America, with Ford in first place. This feat is particularly remarkable given that the Dodge brothers only ran their company for five short years – and four of these were during World War I.
The War Effort
The war years served to solidify the reputation of Dodge vehicles for toughness and reliability. The durability of Dodge vehicles impressed the United States military so much that they utilized Dodge automobiles in the U.S. military expedition to Mexico and the first World War. Dodge automobiles were used in a surprise raid by Lieutenant George Patton, Jr. against Pancho Villa. The Army subsequently ordered 13,000 automobiles and 1,000 ambulances.
The war years were good for the Dodge brothers, whose work made them one of the top U.S. military vehicle and weapon suppliers. But just as they reached the height of their success, something darker and extremely deadly would soon be arriving home with the soldiers… the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
Gone Too Soon: Global Pandemic Claims John and Horace Dodge
In January 1920, the men behind the biggest car brands in the world–Dodge Brothers, Ford, Olds, Chevrolet–gathered for the New York Auto Show. Lamentably, the show was set in the midst of the global 1918 Influenza Pandemic–which claimed two more victims.. John and Horace Dodge.
Horace was the first to fall ill and John never left his bedside–despite a severe bout of tuberculosis earlier in his life that made John especially susceptible to the deadly flu. Horace recovered briefly, but followed his brother to the grave that same year, when complications from the disease resulted in pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.
Although John Dodge never lived at Meadow Brook Hall (it was built years after his death), he is intrinsically linked to it through his impact on Meadow Brook Farms and the incredible Dodge Brothers wealth that enabled his widow, Matilda Dodge Wilson, to build it. Meadow Brook Hall history officially begins in 1908 when John and Matilda Dodge bought a 320-acre farm in Rochester as a weekend country retreat.
The impact and legacy of the Dodge brothers – two of America’s greatest inventors – is one of integrity, quality, and unstoppable mechanical genius.
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