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News | August 9th, 2016

Who Was Clessie Cummins and How Did He Change the Diesel Industry?

Certainly you’ve heard of the Cummins Engine Co., which is now just known as Cummins, Inc. After all, it’s a Fortune 500 company dedicated to engines and similar power products with new sales in the neighborhood of $1.65 billion per year. But while you’re likely familiar with the company, chances are you’re not nearly as familiar with the man behind the near 100-year-old company, Clessie Cummins.

And you should be familiar with Clessie Cummins. That’s because aside from German inventor and engineer Rudolf Diesel, Cummins might be the most important individual as it pertains to the development and widespread adoption of diesel engines worldwide.

Clessie Cummins: The Early Days

Clessie Cummins was, beyond all else, an Indiana farm boy. He’s also the textbook definition of a self-made individual. Born in December of 1888, Cummins dropped out of school after eighth grade and instead went on to become an inventor and self-taught mechanic.

The year of 1919 is one of great significance when it comes to Clessie Cummins, as this was the year that he established the Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana. The goal of the company was to continue to evolve the diesel engine technology that was created by the aforementioned Rudolf Diesel, a technology that had been invented nearly 20 years prior. Cummins’ vision was to bring diesel engines to market and to improve on Diesel’s original invention.

Cummins Engine Company: The Beginning

Before starting Cummins Engine Company, Cummins owned and operated his own auto shop. One of his financial backers for this shop was William Glanton, or W.G., Irwin, a wealthy local banker. Lucky enough for Cummins, Irwin believed in his plan with diesel engines enough to invest in the Cummins Engine Company as well. Without Irwin’s financial support, who knows if the diesel engine would have ever become commercialized in the time that it did.

The Christmas Day Ride

Commercialization of a diesel engine didn’t come easy. Ten years into the company’s founding, Irwin had nearly had enough with the lack of progress Cummins had made and threatened to cut off his funds if something didn’t change soon. The diesel engines that Cummins had been developing just weren’t catching on like he anticipated with the public.

To help sway Irwin, and to help sway the public on diesel engine technology, Cummins mounted a diesel engine into a Packard limousine and took his financial investor on a ride through town on Christmas Day 1929. This limousine goes down in history as America’s first diesel-powered vehicle. Irwin was happy with the development and reaffirmed his support of Cummins’ company. The ride was also a great marketing ploy that wound up getting others excited about diesel’s potential.

Development of the Model H

In the 1920s and 1930s, most of the diesel engines that Cummins had brought to market were used to power yachts. Unfortunately, when the Great Depression hit, yachts pretty much vanished from the lifestyle of the Americans that had previously owned them. This led Cummins to focus further on the development of an engine for vehicles. In 1933, he released the Model H diesel engine for vehicles – an engine that remains the company’s most successful diesel engine today.

Four years later, Cummins Engine Company turned its first profit. In 1940, Cummins offered 100,000 mile warranties on its diesel engines. And in the 1950s, when the United States began creating more highways and interstates for shipping and transportation, Cummins’ business really took off, soon becoming the market leader for diesel engines in semi-trucks.

Cummins’ Legacy

As we noted, next to Rudolph Diesel, Cummins may just be the most influential person when it comes to the development of diesel engines. The early diesels that Cummins made, such as the Model F, were used in boats, while later versions were widely used in military equipment, heavy-duty trucks, construction equipment and, eventually, passenger cars and trucks.

Despite Cummins bringing the diesel engine to the market and leading a successful company after a bevy of trial and error, he was forced out of the company in 1955, effectively retiring from his position as chairman. After leaving his company, he moved to California to work for the Allison Engine Company. He passed away in 1968, innovating and developing until he died.

Cummins held 33 patents for his various diesel innovations and inventions in his lifetime. He also set various endurance and speed world records thanks to the performance of the diesel engines he improved and invented.

But above all, Cummins was a self-made man with a limited education who had a vision and had a goal and worked painstakingly to make it work. It wasn’t easy and at times it wasn’t fun, but Cummins persisted – and the diesel engine as we know it today largely has him to thank for it.


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