Herrick Memorial Library at Alfred University

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Clarence Spicer

photo of Clarence Spicer
Overview: Alfred University’s Dr. Jinghong, mechanical engineering professor, has conducted research in advanced materials for the automotive industry. But the universal joint was AU’s initial connection with the American automotive industry more than a century ago. Clarence W. Spicer, inventor of the universal joint, was an Alfred student from 1891-1894. Spicer received the patent for the universal joint in 1903 while studying at Cornell University and began manufacturing his invention as Spicer Manufacturing Company in Plainfield, NJ on April 1, 1904. Nearly a century later, his company today is Dana Corporation, with headquarters in Toledo, Ohio and worldwide automotive parts sales approaching $10 billion per year. Spicer served as a member of the Alfred University Board of Trustees from 1917 until his death in November 1939. He was a member and officer of the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) and is a member of the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Full Story:
An Alfred University student—although not widely known—played a major role in getting American-made automobiles on the road a century ago. And now AU researchers are working to keep Americans on the road by assisting Detroit automakers in producing more fuel-efficient vehicles.
In an effort to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil, the Bush Administration "FreedomCar" project challenges American automakers to develop technologies and advanced materials that dramatically reduce oil consumption and are applicable across a wide range of passenger vehicles. Alfred University researchers are helping to develop advanced materials, of which magnesium is a major player.
With increased use of a magnesium alloy in the automotive industry, new developments for lightweight components such as the engine block, head, transmission case and chassis are attracting more interest. The lighter alloys, however, are subject to creep, deformation of the component under the stress at high temperatures.
Dr. Jinghong Fan, professor of mechanical engineering, AU School of Engineering, is overseeing research on cyclic creep of the lightweight magnesium alloy components. A related concern of automakers is load retention of bolted joints used to connect magnesium alloy components. AU researchers, under contract with GM, Ford and Daimler Chrysler, have developed a new type of testing assembly for the study of bolt load retention. With this work, AU is developing a powerful tool for wide applications in designing reliable bolt load retention assembly and more accurately predicting bolt load retention behavior.
Among the automotive components affected by this research is the universal joint. Invented by one-time AU student Clarence W. Spicer, his work was a key to the rapid acceleration of American auto manufacturing.
In 1902, an estimated 8,000 automobiles were produced by nearly 50 American automakers. Power transmission for these vehicles, however, became a complex engineering problem. Early cars used sprockets and chains much like bicycles. They were unsightly and noisy at high speeds. They also were difficult to lubricate and they broke frequently, no doubt due to stones and rocks as there were only 144 miles of paved roads in the country at that time.
Clarence W. Spicer’s invention—a major engineering breakthrough—replaced the awkward chain method of transferring power from the engine to the wheels of a motor vehicle. Used to attach the engine and rear axle to a propeller shaft, Spicer’s gadget reduced noise, protected against dust and dirt, and was easy to lubricate.
With application of Spicer’s patented universal joint, American automakers offered a more reliable vehicle and sales rocketed from about 125,000 in 1909 to 1,745,792 in 1917—and the rest is history. But who was this Clarence W. Spicer and how did an Illinois lad find his way to Alfred? In order for one to understand the life of Clarence Winfred Spicer, one must be introduced to the family of Seventh Day Baptists in America. Numbering no more than 10,000 members at any one time in the Christian denomination distinguishes itself from other Baptists by upholding the Biblical seventh day Sabbath. Its greatest growth as a body over its three centuries in America seems to have been through biological means—and as a result, most Seventh Day Baptists are related in one way or another.
With the first church founded in Rhode Island in 1671, they were a hardy lot who joined the pioneer western migration. Settling in eastern New York (Berlin in Rensselaer, then on to western New York where they settled in Alfred and eventually established the select school that is now Alfred. The church at Alfred served as a "mother church," giving birth to a number of nearby churches and other churches that were planted in the West. With the continued westward movement, churches were established in what was then the "Northwest," now considered the "Midwest."
Alfred became a hub of the Seventh Day Baptists with the establishment of the denomination’s school of theology at Alfred University in 1853. Likewise, the denomination’s Board of Christian Education was headquartered, as it is today, in Alfred. The Sabbath Recorder, a weekly publication that went into most Seventh Day Baptist households, was first published in Alfred and later in Plainfield, NJ that once was home to the denomination’s headquarters.
In his 1977 book, A Free People in Search of a Free Land, S.D.B. Historian Donald A. Sanford wrote of the Sabbath Recorder’s part in the S.D.B.’s westward migration, "After 1842 when the migrations were largely to the trans-Appalachian regions of the mid and far West, the publication of the denominational weekly newspaper, the Sabbath Recorder extended the scope of information about a new frontier to a much larger circle of the church family. This type of correspondence tended to emphasize the desirability and need for those searching out new homes to locate among those holding similar convictions and practices. Thus for Seventh Day Baptists, the attractiveness of the region ahead was measured in social and religious rather than in economic values."
Young Clarence Spicer was an inventive Seventh Day Baptist who, thanks to his mechanical inclinations, maintained the artificial ice-making equipment of the creamery at his father’s West Hallock (now Edelstein), IL dairy farm. Reared in a Sabbath-keeping home in the small railroad settlement in the fertile Illinois River Valley, he was baptized when he was nine years of age and became a member of the West Hallock Seventh Day Baptist Church. There, he was active in The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor.
No doubt his parents, John G. and Cornelia (Babcock) Spicer, like most Seventh Day Baptists, read the Sabbath Recorder religiously. By reading the Sabbath Recorder, the couple could keep up with the news of family and friends back East. John, after all, had ten siblings residing near S.D.B. congregations in Hopkinton and Westerly, RI, Adams Center, NY and Plainfield, NJ, while Cornelia had Babcock cousins almost anywhere there was a S.D.B. church.
The publication featured news from the denomination’s approximately 100 churches, Bible readings, vital statistics, reports from denominational agencies such as the Missionary Society, Memorial Board, and Board of Christian Education. It included promotional material for Alfred Academy, Alfred College, and the denomination’s School of Theology — and it even published train schedules!
Passenger trains were in their heyday in the late 1800s. They allowed delegates from Seventh Day Baptist churches throughout the country to attend the denomination’s annual weeklong General Conference, which was held at varying locations and where they conducted the business of the denomination.
So, given the ease of transportation by rail and the educational limitations of West Hallock, Clarence Spicer’s parents in fall 1887 sent his older sister Minnie to Alfred. Boarding the northbound Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe train in Edelstein, transferring in Chicago to the next eastbound Erie train, Minnie finally stopped in Alfred Station a couple miles from Alfred Academy. Meantime, Clarence, then 12 years old, helped his father on the farm that was home to Peoria County’s first creamery and produced a weekly average of 175 pounds of prize-winning butter.
But a few years later, it was Clarence’s turn to board the train to Alfred. He enrolled in Alfred Academy in 1891. Since the granting of the University Charter in 1857, Alfred had no teaching or administrative distinction between students of the College of Liberal Arts and students in preparatory subjects. Hastened by a ruling of the New York State Board of Regents, in 1897, that was changed. The preparatory school (Alfred Academy) was separated from Alfred College.
At Alfred, Clarence had acquaintances (and probably relatives) whom he had met at S.D.B. General Conference sessions. And while he left behind the fertile farmland of Peoria County, Illinois, in Alfred he could continue growing in his Seventh Day Baptist faith while his mechanical mind was being nurtured and encouraged in a stimulating learning environment.
At Alfred, he was no doubt influenced by Boothe Colwell Davis, who first as pastor, then as president of Alfred University, served as a guiding member of the Young People’s Society for Christian Endeavor. Clarence, right at home, continued his association with the organization. A classmate destined to become his wife, Anna Olive Burdick, was also involved in Christian Endeavor.
In 1889, when Anna was 14 and her brother Willis Reed was 12, her family had moved from DeRuyter in central New York to Alfred where the children could enjoy the educational benefits of Alfred College and its preparatory school (Alfred Academy).  The daughter of a druggist/merchant, Anna also entered Alfred Academy in the fall 1891 term. At the time of Anna’s and Willis’ baptisms, their parents, James R. and Sarah Burdick, united by letter with them into membership with the S.D.B. Church at Alfred, of which they continued as members until death.
While Anna and Clarence may have struck up a friendship as classmates and fellow members of Christian Endeavor, perhaps his absence made their hearts grow fonder. Clarence probably returned to his Illinois home to assist with the dairy farm after classes ended in late June 1894. A farming injury early in his career had limited his father’s labors and, compounded by his sister Minnie’s illness and subsequent death in 1895, Clarence was needed at home.
Alfred hosted the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference in August 1896 and, more than likely, Clarence was there rekindling his relationship with Anna Olive Burdick, because three-and-a-half months later, they were married. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, 1896, one day after his twenty-first birthday and seven days prior to hers, the two were united in marriage in the Alfred home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Reed Burdick, with President Boothe Colwell Davis performing the ceremony.
The couple took up residence near the Spicer family farm in Illinois, but a few years later with two-year-old son Harold, returned to Alfred in late 1899. The Dec. 13, 1899 Alfred Sun reported, "Mr. and Mrs. Clarence W. Spicer and little son Harold, arrived in Alfred Thursday from Edelstein, Ill. Mr. Spicer has entered the University for studies preparatory to a course in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering at Cornell. They will occupy the upright part of the Eaton house, opposite Firemens Hall, during their stay here."

Spicer's automobile,
 photo courtesy of Dana Corporation
At Cornell, asked to select from among three assignments, Clarence chose to design and build a motor car. Of the experimental car that he built, his own notes disclosed some interesting facts, "So far as I know this automobile was the first to have a power plant under a hood in front, and the first steamer to use an atmospheric condenser to reclaim the exhaust steam. In connection with this, two patents were issued to me on oil burners during my junior and senior years. Furthermore, this layout in my sophomore year was the beginning of the Spicer universal joint."
With the encouragement and advice of his mentor, Dean Robert H. Thurston, Clarence filed a patent application for his universal joint on Sept. 2, 1902 and was issued the patent on May 19, 1903.
As he noted, the patent wasn’t his first. In all, he was issued about 40 patents over the years. He invented a machine for balancing propeller shafts, a machine for producing welded tubing, a heat-treating furnace, a railroad generator drive, a safety clutch for the generator drive, a machine for marking round surfaces, flexible couplings, and a method of easily erecting a wire fence.
Issuance of the universal joint patent was cause for celebration in an otherwise solemn year for Clarence Spicer. His father, John Green Spicer, died on Feb. 8, 1903. That was followed by the death of Dean Thurston on Oct. 25, 1903. With no mentor for his final semester at Cornell, Clarence decided to leave college to engage in the manufacture of his patented universal joint.
Clarence began manufacturing his universal joints on April 1, 1904 in Plainfield, NJ in a corner of the Potter Printing Press Company, owned by relatives. That Clarence Spicer’s universal joint was in demand before it was even manufactured testified to both the quality of its design and the healthy state of the automotive industry in 1904.
Establishing a five-day work week and employing fellow Seventh Day Baptists in Plainfield, NJ, Spicer became an entrepreneurial model for his fellow Sabbathkeepers, as noted in the September 12, 1910 Sabbath Recorder. An article titled "Are Industrial Establishments for Seventh-day Baptists Feasible?" stated, "I understand that Mr. Clarence W. Spicer of Plainfield, New Jersey, had an idea that in the construction of motors to be used in automobiles…a better joint was possible. Men of means were convinced of its practicality until now the Spicer Manufacturing Company is doubling the size of its plant and has orders on hand for many months’ production."
Encouraging its S.D.B. readers to launch business ventures to employ fellow Seventh Day Baptists, the article continued, "This plant can thus use all unemployed Sabbath-keeping help at fair wages, make the name and the face of the discoverer a prominent feature in all magazines and papers, and render his bank account of such size that Salem, Alfred and Milton may possibly share in the benevolence of his shrewd foresightedness."
Spicer Universal Joint Manufacturing Company grew rapidly but, unfortunately, with the growth came challenges. Unable to keep up with demand, Clarence was forced to file inconclusive lawsuits against competitors producing imitations. In need of capital for manufacturing expansion, he traveled to New York to put his case before the investment bank, Spencer Trask & Co. Trask saw enough promise in the company to hand the papers to a thirty-three-year-old lawyer by the name of Charles Dana.
Dana visited Plainfield where, according to company lore, he found Spicer’s desk piled high with papers.
"What are those?" asked Dana.
"New orders," answered Spicer.
"And where are your bills?"
Spicer answered by opening a drawer and showing Dana a bare handful of invoices. The huge pile of orders next to the small stack of bills was all the encouragement Dana needed to become involved in the business.
Thus began, in early 1914, Spicer’s association with Charles A. Dana. Not an engineer, but a great businessman, Dana reorganized and refinanced the Spicer Manufacturing Corporation and Clarence was free to concentrate on product improvement, invention of new products and improved methods of manufacturing. President of the company from 1914 to 1958 and chair from 1948 to 1966, Dana developed the Spicer company into a multi-faceted automotive supplier known today as the Dana Corporation.
Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1978, Charles A. Dana (1881-1975)  proved that "you don’t have to be an engineer to become a driving force in the automotive industry." The inventor, Spicer, joined Dana in the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1995. Among his already noted accomplishments, Spicer was one of the several experts called upon by the United States Army to design the Class B Liberty Truck for Army use in World War I.
With the gradual move of the major automakers from the Northeast to Detroit, a new Spicer manufacturing plant was built in Toledo, Ohio in 1928, thus facilitating closer ties to the automakers. All the while, Clarence maintained ties with Alfred University, where he was named a trustee in 1917, a position he held until his death in November 1939.
Two of his three sons, Robert Thurston Spicer (named after Clarence’s mentor at Cornell) and John Reed Spicer, were graduated from Alfred University. Son John Reed Spicer, who married Virginia Bond (daughter of Dean A.J.C. Bond), taught and served as an administrative assistant at Alfred University from 1935 through 1945.
Alfred University awarded Clarence W. Spicer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, in June 1935. In introducing the degree candidate, Professor Clifford M. Potter said of Spicer, "After studying here for some time, he entered Cornell and pursued a course in mechanical engineering. He is the inventor and manufacturer of the famous Spicer Universal Joint which is known to engineers the world over. He also perfected broaches for cutting squares and splined holes. Both of these mechanisms are very important to the automotive industry. He has done a vast amount of research on other engineering problems encountered in the manufacture of motor cars…"
In awarding the degree, President John Nelson Norwood said, "Student of science in Alfred and Cornell, master scientific searcher into the mysteries of mechanics, inventor, and manufacturer, whose name and product go wherever motor vehicles travel, business executive, valued trustee, and friend of your Alma Mater, Alfred welcomes you back to the scenes of your earlier days and gladly presents you with this token of your success and of her approval…"
Throughout his career, Clarence was in trade associations with some 29 years of membership in the Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc. for which he served both as treasurer and president. He was also a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the American Society for Metals, the American Society for Testing Materials, the Association of Railway Electrical Engineers and the Engineers Society of Detroit. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1995.
Today, his company and his patented products live on. Now known as the Dana Corporation, with headquarters in Toledo, Ohio and worldwide sales approaching $10 billion per year, Clarence Spicer’s universal joint manufacturing venture will celebrate its centennial in April 2004.

Written by David Snyder, editor and publisher of the Alfred Sun, a weekly community newspaper, and a library assistant in the Access Services and Special Collections Departments at Herrick Memorial Library.