MECHANICSBURG – Throughout its 240-year history, the United States has produced its fair share of inventors who changed the American landscape forever, from Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, to Orville and Wilbur Wright. While Champaign County native John William Lambert is not as widely known and recognized as one of America’s greatest inventors, his accomplishments speak otherwise.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Lambert, who was born on a farm near Mechanicsburg in 1860 and lived in Union Township until he was 16, left his mark on the country in the form of over 600 patents, including ones for the first gasoline engine and first gearless transmission made in the country.
On Saturday, Lambert will be honored during Mechanicsburg’s annual Summer Celebration for his greatest achievement and arguably one of the most important inventions of the 19th century – the first gasoline-powered automobile in the country.
“Contrary to popular misconception, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He mass produced it after the First World War and made it available to all,” said Carol Jean Lambert, a descendent of John William Lambert. “The person who designed, built and drove the first car in America to run by gas was my great-grandfather. He did it in Ohio City, Ohio, in 1891.”
According to the Ohio History Connection, formerly the Ohio Historical Society, Lambert’s invention, known as the Buckeye gasoline buggy or Lambert gasoline buggy, was a single-cylinder vehicle in which he placed an engine in a buggy chassis that featured two rear wheels and a single wheel (taken from a wheelbarrow) in the front.
The vehicle, which could reach speeds as high as 15 miles per hour, landed Lambert another honor in 1891 when he was involved in the first gasoline-powered automobile accident in U.S. history.
The Ohio History Connection website states Lambert and passenger James Swoveland were riding in Lambert’s “Buckeye” when it struck a tree root, causing the buggy to smash into a horse hitching post. Injuries were reported as being minor.
Historical records show Lambert tried to market his “horseless carriage” with a price tag of $550, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
Lambert persevered, however, and in the early 1900s, he founded the Lambert Automotive Company in Anderson, Indiana. From 1905 through 1916, the company manufactured not only automobiles, but also trucks, fire engines and tractors.
One inventor history forgot
For nearly 50 years, residents of Ohio City have honored Lambert and his invention of the first gasoline-powered automobile in the country with a weekend festival known as Lambert Days.
Outside Ohio City, however, Lambert is generally unknown by the masses as his legacy has taken a back seat to other automotive pioneers of his era.
Carol Jean Lambert, who has written two books on her late great-grandfather – “Who Invented America’s Gasoline Automobile?” and “Something New Under The Sun, The History of America’s First Car” – believes she knows why John William Lambert never became a household name.
“The answer to the mystery of why John did not promote his primary accomplishment lies in his family background, his time in history, and the engaging curiosity of his intellect,” she writes on her website at caroljeanlambertbooks.com. “John Lambert left the arguments over who was first to his colleagues, while his interest was in making what was before him better.”
Ms. Lambert, who lives in Clinton, Massachusetts, said there are several documents and photographs that historians throughout the years have used to determine the “Buckeye” or Lambert gasoline buggy was indeed the first of its kind in America. These historical documents are kept at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.