Prest-O-Lite, Carl Fisher's Risk


A conversation that has stuck with me for several years now is one I had back in 2009 with author Charles Leershen who wrote an entertaining but biased book titled, “Blood and Smoke: A True Tale of Mystery, Mayhem and the Birth of the Indy 500.” It was clear to me that he had been referencing First Super Speedway in researching material for his book. To his credit, he recognized me by reaching out for a conversation and by listing my site in his preface as a resource.
I say Charles had a bias because he did not hide it. One of the themes of his book is that Indianapolis Motor Speedway Founder Carl Fisher manipulated the results of the landmark first Indianapolis 500 to ensure a victory for Indianapolis-based Nordyke & Marmon, the creator of the now-iconic winning car, the Marmon Wasp.
Leershen’s opinion of the situation, and, in my estimation, his view of the world, is one of omnipresent conspiracy. That’s not uncommon and easily understood because the ego works most diligently within those driven by a quest for power. None of us are above it, and the challenge of life is to recognize it within ourselves. Most, by my observation, fail and therefore Leershen’s suspicion of Fisher is entirely justifiable.
As our conversation progressed it was apparent to me that Leershen had formed an opinion about Carl Fisher’s character and how it manifested itself along two big sets of decisions. Those were: 1) Insuring the outcome of the first Indianapolis 500 would benefit the auto industry of Fisher’s hometown, Indianapolis, and, 2) That Fisher put people at risk to benefit himself — that he really didn’t care too much about what happened to them as long as he got what he wanted.
On the first topic there can be no doubt that Fisher was a booster for his home city and had many friendships in the local industry, among them Howard Marmon and his long-time business associate and partner in founding the Speedway, Arthur C. Newby, who was also a founder at another local automobile manufacturer, the National Motor Vehicle Company.
Honestly, the suspicions concerning the outcome of the race are not something I spend a great deal of time worrying about. No one will conclusively prove what really happened one way or the other. I think Fisher had other motives for doing things like burning the records of the race. I think he was embarrassed about the sloppy officiating. I think that the last thing he wanted was the embarrassment of a prevailing view to emerge that his team had undergone so much to conduct the race but it was so mismanaged no one could point to a winner. Regardless, I feel like it is nothing more than another harmless topic of conversation.
It was Leershen’s view about Carl Fisher’s flagrant disregard for the safety of others that intrigued me. My interest stems from what such an opinion said about Carl Fisher’s reputation, and what it said about me. Mr. Leershen couldn’t possibly know about the latter and I am certain he could not care less if he did.
When Charles asked my opinion about Fisher, I told him that I thought the Speedway founder was more complicated than to simply write him off as someone with no consideration for others, or worse, a sociopath. I told him that I believed Fisher assessed risk to the health and well-being of others much as he did with the chances he took with his own life. I think it was his filter to the world and his intensely kinetic mind never stopped cycling long enough to think things through.
Consider this. I don’t know how bad Fisher’s eyesight was, but his myopic condition is well documented and he did not take steps to correct it with spectacles until after adulthood. He might even have been legally blind. This handicap did not deter him from racing cars or performing promotional stunts for his bicycle shop business by riding one of his products on a tightrope across two downtown Indianapolis multi-story office buildings.
His stunts earned him the nickname, “Crazy Carl,” and they included sailing a balloon over the city with a Stoddard-Dayton automobile attached like a basket. Fisher sat at the wheel of the vehicle. On another occasion he had a giant two wheel bicycle constructed — one of those antiquated models with the oversized front wheel — so that he could mount it from a second story window and ride it on a downtown street.
Fisher’s curiosity about things, his passion for simply living, made such risks worth it. In 1909 he flew one his gas balloons into the vortex of a thunderstorm and was lucky to escape with his life. On another occasion, when the Wright Brothers visited the Speedway in June 1910, he hitched an airplane ride with Orville in an attempt to peer over the horizon to get a last peek of the sun at dusk.
While the technology of such vessels had advanced since the first flight in December 1903, the 1910 craft appeared to the layman to be pretty much the same. The motor produced less than 20 horsepower, and the frame was tubing with silk stretched over it to catch the wind. I liken it to a kite. It had no seats. The pilot laid his belly down in front of some levers operating the engine and rudder. In this case, Fisher laid down beside the famous airman. Fisher would later say he left he clutched the tube frame so tightly he probably indented it with an imprint of his fingers. The two men soared in the crude contraption to nearly a mile above the ground.
I don’t think I impressed Leershen with my perspective. I am not sure he saw me as much more than a super-fan with an online scrapbook of esoteric news clips. Or maybe I just did a lousy job of making my point. I can think of numerous times in my life when I failed to present my ideas in a compelling fashion.
Leershen came away convinced the view he held of Fisher — as a man with little regard for the danger he exposed others to — was correct. His book reflects that.
It’s not hard to see how he could come to that conclusion. To Leershen’s point, Fisher was an intelligent man and intellectually he had to understand that his sport, auto racing, was inherently dangerous. He rushed the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into service too soon and was clearly motivated to recover his construction costs as rapidly as possible.
Development work to transform acres of farmland into the 2.5-mile oval complete with 41 buildings had only started in April and yet by the second week of August the track hosted a major motorcycle event. After looking at the uncured, crushed stone and tar track many of the riders balked. At least two of those brave or foolish enough to venture onto the running surface ended up taking big spills on their way to a hospital bed.
This foreshadowing was blithely ignored and a week later Fisher and his team welcomed dozens of giant, brutish race cars for the track’s inaugural auto race meet. By the end of three days the death toll was startling. The contests had claimed five lives — one driver, two riding mechanics and two spectators. Others were injured as well. Within days, Indiana’s lieutenant governor called for a ban to the sport.
There’s certainly other evidence of Fisher’s willingness to put others into harm’s way. There is no better example than Prest-O-Lite, the major corporation he formed in 1904 with long-time business associate James Allison. The company was first named, “Concentrated Acetylene Company,” and its initial product was Prest-O-Lite, the first practical headlight for automobiles.
Prior to Prest-O-Lite, headlights were really just lanterns which, aside from being blown out by a gust of wind, were simply ineffective in illuminating a roadway at night. Prest-O-Lite was not electric, but fueled by bright-burning acetylene gas. The light was enhanced and directed by mirrors at the back of the unit. The gas was stored in a brass cylinder mounted to a car’s running board and fed to the headlight unit by tubing. The gas was ignited by a switch not unlike a gas grill.
The idea of using acetylene for such a purpose was not new. The problem was that it was seen as too risky. The gas is highly volatile and can produce powerful and deadly explosions. The end product — the gas-filled brass canister — was safe. The danger came in the process of charging the canisters with gas. A leak or some mistake could be devastating.
Nevertheless, Fisher and his closest business associate, James Allison, plunged full on to launch their new corporation and seize significant opportunities. Both had been successful businessmen up to that time, having already founded other businesses independent of one another, but this company that would later be re-named, “Prest-O-Lite,” elevated them to the elite of those with high net worth.
Their partner in the effort was a gentleman by the name of P.C. Avery, a much older man who owned the headlight patent but lacked the resources and probably the business savvy to make a go of the enterprise. The three men started modestly but within two years they had 25 employees and had moved into the three-story, brick structure that had formerly served as a veterinary hospital.
The business prospered as suddenly motorists could extend their driving hours well into the pitch of night. The units never exploded and the company owners counted their money and paid their employees.
Then, on August 18, 1907 the seemingly inevitable happened. There was an explosion in that former veterinary college. Thick, black smoke curled its way into the atmosphere and shrouded the surrounding area of a populous district of downtown Indianapolis. The analogies to cannons extended beyond simply the auditory as big chunks of metal blasted forth from the stricken building to crash into neighboring buildings: a roofing business, a hotel, a restaurant and even bashing a giant hole through a wooden train box car parked some 150 feet away.
Despite a rain of shrapnel, no one was hurt. The firm’s employees had been cautioned by management that they were literally playing with fire and understood their new priority was to drop everything and put as much distance between their hides and the factory-turned-tinderbox with all the alacrity they could muster. Amazingly, none of them was seriously injured. Equally fortunate is the fact that no onlooker or circumstantial bystander suffered physical harm.
Officials, including Indianapolis Fire Department Chief Charles Coots, set to work seeking an ordinance to ban Prest-O-Lite to the outskirts of town. That would set into motion a series of decisions that eventually landed the company five miles west of the city and across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s the location of today’s Praxair, a company that traces its lineage to Prest-O-Lite.
Let’s return to the point of my commentary on this history and the man in question. One of the findings of this first Prest-O-Lite conflagration — there would be several more, not just in Indianapolis but across the nation — was that the cost to Prest-O-Lite of insuring the business was prohibitive. At least that’s what Fisher and Allison felt.
There could be no doubt that everyone understood the risk, including Carl Fisher. That’s not the question. The question is how a person sees risk and how willing is he to assume that for himself and others. In spending time thinking about this character named Carl Fisher, I see him as a man with tremendous risk tolerance.
He was willing to put his life on the line and he was always willing to make high-stakes financial wagers. I can’t impose my thought process on Carl because in no way would I make the decisions he did. In fact, I am risk averse.
What I can imagine, though, is that while Carl Fisher recognized that taking risks meant that his decisions would occasionally produce outcomes he would not have chosen. The consequence of such decisions was, to Fisher, all part of the game. In his mind, he would simply scramble back up to give it another go.
I can also imagine that in his ever-churning, ready-fire-aim mind he simply did not think through that others may not share his risk tolerance. He was too busy charging ahead with his inexhaustible supply of optimism that everything he did, including his mistakes, would be worthwhile.
Is this a defense of Carl Fisher? Nope. It’s just my opinion, and it’s okay if Charles Leershen — or you — don’t agree. If you want to learn more about Fisher and Prest-O-Lite, check out my analysis of the news coverage of the August 1907 fire by clicking thru.