Remembering J.B. Rhodes, the "Patent King" of Kalamazoo
(This story has been updated. Corrections are in italics.)
Kalamazoo has a history full of inventions – stoves, Gibson guitars, and Checker cabs. But you probably don't know the name of the man who may have been Kalamazoo’s most prolific inventor. Over the course of half-a-century, J.B. Rhodes created some major inventions connected with automobiles and railroad cars, as well as a precursor to today's GPS. Kalamazoo historian Tom Dietz will be giving a talk on Rhodes at the Gilmore Car Museum on Sunday.
Back in the year 1891, getting around wasn’t easy. Your choices were basically limited to trains, a horse and buggy, or your own two feet. So imagine this: you’re walking down the streets of Kalamazoo, and you see a 26-year-old inventor named J.B. Rhodes. He’s puttering around inside a new kind of vehicle: one without a horse.
This self-propelled vehicle was a big deal in a world where cars powered by internal combustion engines didn't become common for a few more years. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that such engines would not be invented until 20 years later.)
"What he was actually trying to do was develop an automotive vehicle to transport people between Kalamazoo and Gull Lake," says Kalamazoo historian Dietz. "There were a lot of resorts around that time. Where people could go for weekends, Sunday afternoons."
Dietz says Rhodes' car didn’t pan out. Rhodes kept worrying that the engine might explode. But the vehicle was only the tip of the iceberg.
Dietz says Rhodes designed, and applied for, a lot more patents, for inventions like oil bottles and spouts, razor blades, saw grinding machines, and fishing lures. In total, Rhodes received more than 200 patents, according to contemporary articles in the Kalamazoo Gazette.
He made his biggest impact, though, helping people get around. He designed new pavers that crushed gravel and made roads smoother. He created a new kind of device to transfer oil into your car.
But his most successful invention? That was a device for railroad cars, to make it easier to dump their cargo out. Instead of having to walk over to each car and dump them individually, Rhodes’ system allowed cars to be unloaded all at once.
Dietz says that was particularly useful during one major moment in history: the building of the Panama Canal.
"So the government adopts that device as they’re building [the canal], and if you’ve ever seen any photographs of the building of the Panama Canal, they moved in massive quantities of gravel and dirt and they moved out massive quantities of gravel and dirt," Dietz says. "Now that they could do this a little more quickly, that saved the government a lot of time and money."
So much money in fact that, according to the Kalamazoo Telegraph, the U.S. government gave Rhodes $2 million for his invention. Adjusted for inflation, that’s something like $20 to $30 million today. Instead of resting on his laurels, though, Rhodes just kept inventing. And he kept having successes with inventions like new lures for fishing and a new kind of safety razor.
By the early twentieth century, though, as Rhodes’ career wound down, he created a spectacular failure, but one that’s worth talking about: a GPS-like device called the "Pathfinder."
Dietz says the Pathfinder was a "mechanical device that you would have had to pre-program by hand." Dietz says in that era, you used something called a “road book.” It told people how many miles it took to get from Point A to Point B. It would say to go something like "eight miles on this road, then turn left, then seven miles on another road," and so on. Well, with the Pathfinder, you could plug those distances into the device.
"And as you went along, it’s powered by your motor in the engine," Dietz says. "It starts going around, and when the odometer tells you’ve gone eight miles, a little 'bing' would happen, and you’d get to your road. And you’d hear, with a 'bing' or a 'bing-bing,' you’d go to the next [road]. My understanding is that it worked."
With so much programming required, though, the Pathfinder ultimately wasn’t successful. Despite that, Dietz says, J.B. Rhodes should still be remembered in Kalamazoo as one of the great inventors of this city. So how is he remembered?
"Well, I’m afraid the great majority of people in Kalamazoo don’t even know he existed," he says.
Dietz says that because so many of Rhodes’ inventions – from his GPS to his razor – have all been surpassed by later products, you can’t point at something and say, “J.B. Rhodes designed that.” But he says that doesn’t mean Kalamazoo should forget about Rhodes, and his impact during his era.
"Not everyone can leave a legacy that impacts people’s lives a century or more later," he says. "If you’ve impacted people’s lives in the century you lived, helped people live a more pleasant life, that’s pretty good."