: 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
No doubt his parents, John G. and Cornelia (Babcock) Spicer, like most
Seventh Day Baptists, read the Sabbath Recorder
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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