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BUTLER COUNTY BEGINNINGS Carl Fisher’s eyesight and foresight

BY ANNIE CRENSHAW

 

One of the men behind the revolutionary transcontinental roads of the early 1900s in our country was Carl Fisher. We wouldn’t have the Lincoln Highway or the Dixie Highway without him.

Don’t recognize his name? Carl Fisher was an entrepreneur who not only created and promoted our first highways, but invested in tourism and travel in a BIG way.

To take a local view: Greenville might not be the town it is today (a charming small town and a popular stop on Interstate 65, one of our favorite government-numbered roads), if Carl Fisher had never been the man he was destined to be.

Carl Fisher was born in a small town near Indianapolis, Indiana in 1874. He suffered from severe astigmatism, and had a difficult time in school. He solved that problem by quitting school when he was twelve to help support his family, as boys were often expected to do in those days.

But Fisher was an optimistic mover and shaker, despite his physical disadvantages. He became an indomitable business man who tried new ventures without a blink. Sometimes those projects were successful, sometimes not.

He became a bicycle enthusiast when that new-fangled contraption took off in popularity. He and his brothers opened a bicycle repair shop in 1891, when Carl was just seventeen.

He was soon participating in the exciting new sport of bicycle racing. He joined the Indianapolis “Zig-Zag Cycling Club” with other intrepid cyclists. EVERYBODY was “into” bicycles in the 1890s.

Remember, the bicycle craze caused thousands of riders to clamor for paved roads, and eventually, separate cycle lanes and more sophisticated traffic regulations.

Operating a bicycle shop and riding in bicycle races led Fisher to automobile interests.

In 1904, he and a friend, James Allison (who had also quit school at age 12 to go to work), bought an interest in the U.S. manufacturing patent for acetylene headlights. Fueled by canisters of compressed gas, acetylene lights were the forerunners of the electric auto headlights that became common years later. They gave out a steady, bright light.

Who ever would have thought that you could ride down a dark road at night with lights (attached to your automobile) shining directly in front of you? These lights didn’t fail in the wind or rain; they kept burning. It was wonderful!

Fisher and Allison’s company, Prest-O-Lite, was soon supplying almost every headlight used on automobiles in the United States. Manufacturing plants were built all over the country to meet the demand for these new, amazing lights.

The headlight patent made Fisher and Allison extremely rich when they sold their company to Union Carbide in 1913 for $9 million. It was a selling price that would be just over $270 million in 2023. That’s a long way for a near-sighted boy with a bicycle shop to come!

Fisher was soon racing cars and selling cars as well as supplying parts for them. Despite being a visually impaired young man with Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses, he was fond of promotional stunts and was often injured on the dirt and gravel roadways of his day.

Were physical injuries a drawback to Fisher’s career? Did a little gravel in his face slow him down? Hardly! He turned his hand to the problem and became one of the early developers of automotive safety features.

Learn more about Butler County history with membership in The Butler County Historical & Genealogical Society, P. O. Box 561, Greenville, AL 36037. Read more about Butler County’s Beginnings here – http://sites.rootsweb.com/~albchgs/, and, look for BCHGS on Facebook.

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