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A city of inventors

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From the U.S. Patent Office
This sketch of a proposal for a shaving brush was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by Edward Jones of Columbus in 1910.
From the U.S. Patent Office This sketch of a proposal for a shaving brush was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by Edward Jones of Columbus in 1910.

My co-worker Paul Hoffman is a man of eclectic tastes. He also knows how to surf the Web. Those abilities make an interesting combination.

How else do you explain the topic he presented to me earlier this week: Columbus and its inventors? He not only offered the topic as a suggestion but even supplied me with a very long list of the inventors.

How long is it? I don’t know. I’ve yet to get to the end of it. The list was part of a Google document. I gave up on page 10 when it mentioned something about 804 other issues remaining.

What I had read up to that point was truly fascinating, however, and revealed Columbus to be not just a city where products are made but where they’re invented. The list was compiled from the records of the U.S. Patent Office and goes back to the 19th century (at least as far as Bartholomew County is concerned).

A good portion of the modern-day list is made up of patents granted to engineers at Cummins Inc. relating to various phases of diesel engine production.

But as I went through the whole list, it became apparent that Cummins didn’t have the market on creative inventions.

Indeed, when it comes to local creative minds, there is no match for the now defunct Reeves Pulley Co. The 19th- and early 20th-century maker of agricultural equipment, pulleys and variable speed transmissions acquired scores of patents over the course of a half decade.

The most common name on the patents granted to the local company was hardly a surprise — that of Milton Reeves, one of the brothers who operated the business through most of the first half of the 20th century.

Milton was the inventor in the group, but his creations weren’t limited to transmissions or pulleys. He also created automobiles, including the legendary Sextoauto and Octoauto — six- and eight-wheeled cars equipped to get around on the unpaved roads of the time. His 1897 Motocycle is still a hit at the Indianapolis Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

Right behind him in the mentions of Reeves products was a man named Harry C. Clay. I had never heard of him before, but a check of our archives yielded a story from 1946 that reported his retirement from Reeves Pulley Co. after 50 years of service. He was 83 years old when he retired.

The story mentioned he had come to Columbus in 1896 and was a designing mechanical engineer who invented machinery to take care of any production problems.

The list of inventions also brought back names from Columbus’ industrial past:

Harry Lee Bassett got a patent for a shovel handle when he worked for the Columbus Tool and Handle Co. in 1929.

Darcy Lewellen of Lewellen Manufacturing received a number of patents.

Right behind Milton Reeves and Harry Clay in number of patents would have to be Clessie Cummins, co-founder of Cummins Inc. One was in 1930 for an injector on a two-cycle engine. Perhaps it was the engine that ran in the 1934 Indianapolis 500.

Thomas Webb got a patent for a modular cabinet he developed for Hamilton Cosco in 1970, the same year that Ralph Lay got one for a serving cart that would be sold by Hamilton Cosco.

Earl Booth was the name on a patent for an automobile radio control unit manufactured by Noblitt-Sparks, the forerunner of the late Arvin Industries.

Some really early Columbus businesses recorded patents. John Thompson got one for improvements in the process of tanning in 1895. I suspect it was used in the old Mooney’s Tannery.

Joseph Gent was awarded one for developing the art of extracting germs from ground cereal. He was one of the owners of the old Cerealine Co.

A very familiar name popped out for a patent issued in the 1890s to Isaac M. Brown for developing a machine for ruling paper. Isaac M. Brown was the founding editor of this newspaper in 1872, and his knack for winning patents would be passed on to his son, Isaac T., his grandson, Raymond, and his great-grandson, Robert.

One name in a patent resurrected fond memories of an earlier time. It was awarded to Carl Hertel in 1926 for a tool handle.

Carl was a cantankerous fellow who also happened to be very creative. I don’t know that he acquired a patent for them, but he did develop knee pads that later would be used by basketball players.

At the time, however, he had other, more practical uses in mind. He originally intended them to be worn by roofers.

Carl worked with a fellow who came to be associated with a pretty famous product. In the 1920s he and former Columbus High School basketball star Chuck Taylor developed a new pair of tennis shoes.

Years later Chuck’s name popped up on a brand of tennis shoes that is world-famous today. They’re still called Converse Chucks.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at

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