[Editor’s Note — Here is a nomination for the 2012 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award by Guest Blogger, Anna Jacob]
My nominee for the much-coveted 2012 “Al” is a gentleman with a profound respect for consumer choice. Ransom E. Olds, born in 1864 in Geneva, Ohio, got an early start to his professional life, helping out in his father’s machine shop when he was still a schoolboy. Olds’ talents for mechanical work were developed in this environment under the tutorship of his father and his creative flair was apparent in his inventions. The first car Olds developed was a three-wheeled, one-horsepower, steam turbine fueled with a gasoline burning engine, which offered a healthy competition to the coal or wood burning vehicles being developed around the same time in the nascent auto industry. As early as 1892, Olds attached a pair of these engines to a carriage, each connected to a driving wheel creating a vehicle that performed well on level ground but struggled to climb hills.
An 1893 trip to the Chicago World’s Fair the following year inspired Olds to experiment with fully gas-powered cars. Three years later, Olds’ engine manufacturing firm had an in internal-combustion engine under production and a patent application pending. Enlisting the financial support of Detroit capitalist, Samuel L. Smith, Olds started a new venture, the Olds Motor Works, in 1899. The company’s plant and offices were Detroit’s first permanent auto manufacturing enterprise, located on the Detroit River.
Smith was eager to target consumers at the upper end of the market and pushed Olds to develop an expensive, high-end model but Olds preferred to develop a product that could be sold to a mass market. Olds understood that consumers wouldn’t all necessarily want the same thing. And he also understood that it was exceedingly difficult for any one person, like himself, to anticipate exactly what others would want.
So, rather than committing himself to a single, expensive car design, as Smith wanted, Olds created eleven different prototypes, featuring a dizzying number of innovative technologies including steam-powered, electric, and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Olds wanted to let a thousand flowers bloom (actually, eleven) and then let the market sort it out.
But as it happened, an accident of fate selected Olds’ initial model when a fire destroyed all but one of his eleven prototypes, the gasoline-powered Curved Dash Oldsmobile Runabout. The company concentrated its efforts on fully developing this model. Although it had never been a foregone decision that gasoline-powered engines would be the dominant automobile type, Olds’ company wound up dominating the era of automobile production. In 1901 his company produced 425 gasoline-powered Curved Dash Oldsmobile Runabouts at $650 apiece, well within the grasp of the average American. Four years later, his company sold 6,500 cars. It appeared that Olds had produced the first mass-produced automobile in the U.S.
Olds’ success came amidst fierce competition as hundreds of producers, including such notable individuals as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, were designing prototypes at this time. Yet Olds’ remarkable success is not the reason for his nomination; rather the humility of this early pioneer and his discomfort with choosing on the consumer’s behalf which model should be the dominant automobile design made him an obvious nominee. Instead of firmly defining what an automobile should look like, Olds embraced the innovative messiness that was the hallmark of the first half of the twentieth century, contributing his inventions to an already bewildering array of options. Above all, Olds displayed a respect for diversity and trust in the market to winnow out the winners and losers. Unlike, Ford, who is reported to have quipped that consumers could buy any color car they wanted as long as it was black, Olds dreamed of a market where consumers could buy whatever they wanted…. Period.