- Historic Sites
The Man Who Invented
With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
Fisher was the spirited leader of a group of Indianapolis motor enthusiasts that included Barney Oldfield, the champion racing driver, Gar Wood, later to become the speedboat king, Eddie Rickenbacker, and James A. Allison, designer of the Allison aircraft engine. It was with Allison that Fisher organized the Prest-O-Lite company to manufacture compressed carbide gas fuel for automobile headlights. The early automobiles lacked enough generating power for electric lights, and carbide gas lamps, in which calcium carbide was dissolved by a slow addition of water, were undependable. Fisher and Allison proposed to put on the market tanks of ready-made compressed carbide gas that could be carried on the running board to provide fuel for the car’s headlights. Their experiments were dangerous. The first Prest-O-Lite factory in Indianapolis exploded and shattered windows for miles around. The city council ordered the plant to move to the country-side outside the thickly populated area. As the company expanded and established works in Chicago, Omaha, and New Jersey and on the Pacific coast, there were explosions all over. For a few years Fisher spent most of his time travelling around the country, rebuilding destroyed factories, reassuring frightened workers, and appearing in court at lawsuits. But at last the tanks were safeguarded with an asbestos lining, and the business became highly profitable. In 1912 Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite to Union Carbide for nine million dollars.
Three years earlier, while he was still coping with explosions, Fisher had a grim experience at the opening of the Indianapolis Speedway. Inspired by the huge bowl-shaped concrete speedway at Brooklands in England, Fisher built the automobile track in 1909 in partnership with Allison, A. C. Newby, and Frank Wheeler as a proving and testing ground for car manufacturers; the idea behind it was to make Indianapolis—instead of Detroit—the center of the growing automotive industry. Auto races would be staged on the two-and-a-half-mile oval to pay expenses of the speedway plant, the most elaborate layout of its kind in North America. The track was surrounded by three miles of whitewashed fence, and on the grounds there were forty-one various buildings, a landing field for aircraft and four miles of gas pipes to inflate balloons, three thousand hitching-post spaces for horses and buggies, and a number of grandstands, each with room for seventy-five hundred people. In his haste to get the speedway ready for a grand opening in the summer of 1909, Fisher made a bad mistake. Instead of the hard paved surface he had planned originally, the track was covered with a mixture of crushed limestone and gravel to cut down on expenses.
When the racing cars roared around the curves of the track, they pulverized the loose stone and gravel and threw up clouds of blinding dust that resulted in the death of two drivers on the first day. In the big race on the third and final day of the meet, a 300-mile event with sixteen of the world’s best cars and drivers, the crowd of twenty-two thousand spectators pushed close to the fences along the track. Nearing the 200-mile mark, a local favorite, Charles Merz, lost control of his car when a tire blew off its rim, and crashed through the fence into the crowd. The accident killed his mechanic co-rider and two spectators and seriously injured several others. At the same time on the north turn another dust-blinded driver went through the fence and into the crowd, narrowly missing a throng of people. Fisher stopped the unfinished race. That was the last time in his flamboyant career as a builder and earth-mover that he was known to economize. In a few days he began to rebuild the track with a brick surface.
It was also in 1909, when Fisher was thirty-five, that he found enough spare time to marry a tall, strapping fifteen-year-old named Jane Watts. On the morning of the wedding day he sent a German band to her house to wake her up. When she moved into Fisher’s Indianapolis apartment, the bride found on the living-room sofa a pillow with a leather cover bearing the message “A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.” Over the bed in the bedroom, along with pictures of Napoleon and Lincoln, Carl’s two heroes, there was a patch of sandpaper for striking matches.
“There was—there would always be—a stand on one side of the bed holding a jar of salted peanuts, and on the other side a spittoon,” Jane wrote. “My bridal struggles against that spittoon resembled the crusades of Carrie Nation.”
After rebuilding the speedway and selling Prest-O-Lite, Fisher promised his wife a long vacation in Miami, where he had bought a bay-front house through the mail, sight unseen. He did not become interested in Miami Beach until he noticed the structure of an unfinished wooden bridge extending toward it across Biscayne Bay from Miami. “Where does it lead to?” he asked. When he heard about John S. Collins, the remarkable old Quaker who at the age of seventy-five was trying to build the bridge, Fisher found himself getting involved.