125-year-old electric boat company still making history

For this Plugboats Throwback Thursday about a venerable electric boat company, bear with us for a quick quote from Wikipedia:

The Chicago World’s Fair was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the New World in 1492. The centerpiece of the Fair, the large water pool, represented the long voyage Columbus took to the New World. The Exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on architecture, sanitation, the arts, Chicago’s self-image, and American industrial optimism.

And now to explain what in the world’s fair any of that has to do with electric boats, and also what it has to do with the 2018 Newport International Boat Show!

Let’s begin with this passage from Kevin Desmond’s excellent and comprehensive book ‘Electric Boats and Ships: A History’ (you can buy it here from Amazon).

February, 1892. A small notice appears in Rudder, Sail, and Paddle magazine:

“Launch and boat builders are requested to send bids for supplying fifty 34-foot boats to be propelled by power of any description, and to be able to carry thirty people, to Chief Burnham, Marine Division, Transportation Exhibits Department, World’s Fair, Chicago”

The book goes on to explain that “four companies submitted proposals: two for steam powered boats and two for electric powered boats, and all were asked to provide demonstrations. After the tryouts, the winning bid was from the Electric Launch & Navigation Company.

It was rather fitting that an electric boat should win the contract, as one of the main exhibition buildings on the fairgrounds was the Electrical Building and the fair was a big part of the end of War of the Currents between direct current and alternating current and a dramatic demonstration of the winning AC system.

Passengers sit in a long boat with a fringed canopy on top in an ad from the early 20th century for the Elco electric boat company
Fare for a World’s Fair cruise: 25¢

When U.S. President Grover Cleveland pushed a button to inaugurate the 690 acre fair, it literally lit up with 11,000 kilowatts of electricity powering 250,000 electric light bulbs, instantaneously igniting wonder in everyone.

Kevin goes on to detail the achievements of the 50 electric boats themselves.

Managed by General C.H. Barney, the fleet of launches made 66,975 trips during the six and a half months of the exposition, carrying 1,026,346 passengers 200,925 miles (323,357 km) and earning $314,000 for the World’s Fair organizers.

Their greatest test came on Chicago Day when 622 trips, each trip of three miles, were made by fifty boats. Six of these boats averaged over 40 miles (65 km), carrying on each trip about 40 people.

There were no fewer than 25,000 passengers carried that day alone.

Not bad for a company that had incorporated a month after the first bids were requested, and which had no plant, no equipment, no staff of boat builders or designers, and no track record.

There is a lot more about the boats in the book, including their origins as sewing machine motors, details on how they were charged, descriptions of rides by passengers, and of course the role of the boats in electric propulsion history. Safe to say the history is pretty colourful, and it is a history that comes right up to today.

The World’s Fair was only the beginning

Let’s skip forward from the Fair. The Electric Launch & Navigation Company – Elco – went through some ownership and name changes, and wound up as part of the Electric Boat Company. By 1910 the gasoline (or explosive) engine overtook electric boats in popularity and Elco switched to making boats with those motors. Its most popular was the 26 foot Cruisette cabin cruiser. (There’s a great gallery of historic images on the Elco site.)

Photograph of John F. Kennedy in the cockpit of PT-109
JFK’s PT-109 was made by Elco

During the first World War it built boats for both the British and U.S. navies and throughout WWII built more of the 80 foot PT (patrol torpedo) boats than any other manufacturer. In the movie PT-109 about future President John F. Kennedy’s exploits on one of the boats, the Elco script logo can clearly be seen in a few scenes.

In 1952 the company got out of consumer boats and merged with several other navy and air force contractors. That company, General Dynamics, is now a global aerospace and defence company known for its Gulfstream jets and for its continuing Electric Boat division, which has built 15 of the U.S. Navy’s 19 classes of nuclear submarines.

In 1987 a gentleman by the name of Joe Fleming approached General Dynamics with the idea of acquiring the dormant Elco name and building replicas of the old Elco launches. He was successful, and this new ELCO made new launches in the old style as well as provided parts and assistance in restoring some of the old vessels. Yes – they were still around almost 100 years later!

A new photograph of an electric boat with canopy, very much like the historical version
ELCO still makes the classic launches

In 2009 ELCO was purchased by Steve Lamando, a highly successful investor and lover of classic wooden boats. Not only was he attracted by the lure of the company’s legacy and place in boating history, he also saw a growing market for electric propulsion.

As he (and Joe Fleming, who is still the company’s Chief Engineer) told Trade Only Today magazine in 2014: “Just as the public cast aside steam propulsion, I believe that in this century we’re going to be casting aside diesel and gasoline.’

‘As we saw where the car industry was going, where battery technology was going in terms of lighter and more power, we decided we also needed to jump into this growing market. We made the strategic decision to focus on electric propulsion for the marine industry.”

ELCO now makes electric motors of all sorts and sizes

In its current incarnation, Elco is officially named Elco Motor Yachts and still makes electric launches that are very similar to the original. But the larger and longer focus is on the electric motors – both inboard and outboard. The inboards are the logical continuation of the technology that started with those original yachts and naval craft. ELCO makes both all-electric and hybrid motors for launches, (including the Cruisettes tugs, workboats, water taxis and other commercial craft. They are also applicable to sailboats.

The outboards were introduced in 2014, with motors equivalent to 5 and 7 horsepower gasoline outboards. In 2015 they introduced a 9.9 hp version and then a 15 and 25. The ELCOs look almost exactly like any two or four stroke outboards you’d see, until you look under the cowling. The company’s slogan is: Traditional on the outside. Cutting edge on the inside.

Last year, in 2018,  ELCO introduced a 50 hp all electric outboard motor. Which brings us full circle.

Because when the editors of Cruising World, Sailing World, and Yachting sat down to judge the entries in the prestigious and highly respected Newport International Boat Show New Products Awards, there at the front of the pack, for Best New Green Product, was the Elco Motoryachts EP-50 Electric Outboard Motor, 125 years after the company and its original products were introduced to the brave new world of AC electricity at the Chicago World’s Fair.

You can find out more about ELCO’s motors and boats on the company’s website.

And find out more about the history of electric boats and ships in: Electric Ships and Boats: A History.

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