Remembering Clessie Cummins

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Lyle Cummins, Clessie Cummins’ son, looks at a restored Cummins diesel engine from the early days of the Company during an October 2012 visit to Columbus, Ind.


Lyle Cummins says his father never stopped thinking about how he could make things work better.

From the moment he built his first car as a teen-ager to working on a concept engine in the workshop at his California home in his 70s, Clessie Cummins (1888-1968) pursued innovation with a passion few have ever matched.

“I was one of the luckiest guys alive to be able to be with my father as a child, to do things that my older siblings weren’t able to do because I was still young enough to be traipsed around,” Lyle said during a recent visit to the headquarters of the Company that bears his family’s name.

Lyle grew up watching his father at the height of his career as an inventor and entrepreneur, in what some describe as the golden age of American inventors. Clessie Cummins would share experiences with the likes of Henry Ford, who liked to keep tabs on what his younger colleague was doing as Cummins Engines evolved into a major American company.

The relationship between Lyle and his father was particularly strong, however, because they worked together. Clessie Cummins moved to California in 1945 after leaving the Company he helped found. An influx of military veterans forced Lyle to live at home while he pursued an engineering degree from Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto, Calif.

Father and son worked on cars and other projects while Lyle was in school and joined forces professionally after Lyle graduated and returned several years later for a graduate mechanical engineering degree.

Together, they developed such things as the “Jake Brake”, which converts an engine into a power absorbing air compressor to slow down trucks during long downhill descents, preserving traditional brakes.

“I had that chance to be with him and this kind of colors or brings the personal side out about your dad,” said Lyle, who’s now 82, during a speech on his father’s life and legacy Oct. 17.

Lyle spoke after the Company dedicated a new archive to protect and preserve Cummins’ history. The archive is based in the vault of the former Irwin Union Bank building, located across the street from Cummins Corporate Office Building in Columbus, Ind.

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Lyle Cummins and Cummins CEO Tom Linebarger cut the ribbon on a new archive to preserve Cummins history.


The former bank was obtained by Cummins in 2010 and was converted into office space for the Company.

The archive will hold pictures, documents and other artifacts that were formerly scattered at locations across Cummins. Much of it involves the founding of the Company in 1919 and the partnership between Columbus businessman W.G. Irwin, whose family owned the bank, and Clessie Cummins, the driver Irwin hired in 1908 who loved to tinker with almost anything mechanical in his spare time.

Lyle Cummins said his father was for the most part self-educated. Clessie’s formal education ended in the 8th grade after his family moved to Columbus. Lyle said his dad told family members he left school because he was tired of knowing more than his teachers.

Clessie’s father had a cooperage business and the family moved frequently while he was growing up. Lyle said his father lived in 12 different locations, most of them rural in nature without power or running water, before receiving his 8th grade diploma.

One of the constants in Clessie’s life then was his fascination with all things mechanical. He loved to tinker and look for ways to make rural life easier. Eventually his interests gravitated toward anything with an engine.

After building that car as a teenager, Clessie built a snowmobile at 22, worked on the pit crew of the first winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 23 and built a boat engine that ran on kerosene at 24.

He worked for several automobile companies in Indianapolis before taking a position as a driver in Seymour, Ind. In those early days of the automobile, it was very important that a driver have a lot of mechanical knowledge because getting a car started and keeping it running was no small feat.

In 1908, Clessie heard through his mother that wealthy Columbus businessman W. G. Irwin was looking for a driver. Lyle said the rumor was that Irwin had caught his previous driver smoking.

The partnership between the two men almost fell apart before it got started. Lyle said Irwin was not sure Clessie, who weighed about 125 pounds, was big enough to hand crank the family’s Packard, one of the largest cars available then.

Just when it looked like the engine wasn’t going to start, Clessie managed to get it fired up by priming the engine cylinders with gasoline through a small valve. That set in motion a series of events eventually leading to the creation of what is today an $18 billion business that employs more than 45,000 people around the world.

Clessie was a tireless promoter of diesel technology, launching cross-country trips in trucks, buses and other vehicles to demonstrate the merits of Cummins engines. He entered cars in the Indianapolis 500 to show diesel’s durability and set speed records on the beach at Daytona, Fla.

He first hatched the idea for the Jake Brake on one of those cross country trips after the truck he was driving went careening down a long hill in California and narrowly missed a train before coming to a stop.

Lyle Cummins went on to become an outstanding engineer in his own right and accomplished author and historian. He has written several books about the history of the diesel engine and a biography of his father, “The Diesel Odyssey of Clessie Cummins”. He has agreed to be a partner in the Company’s effort to preserve its history.

John Wall, Cummins Vice President and Chief Technical Officer, said it’s important for the Company to preserve its history to maintain and protect Company values like innovation. Clessie Cummins’ story should serve to inspire future generations of Cummins engineers, he said.

“When we talk about ‘Innovation You Can Depend On,’ that’s what Clessie was doing,” he said, referring to the Company’s motto. “And that’s what we need to be doing moving forward, to keep a dynamic development going on inside the Company and to deliver real value to our customers.”


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