All it takes is a halfway decent snowstorm and all of a sudden thousands of people are zipping-up jackets, strapping on helmets and revving up for a session of snowmobiling. But how many of them know that the snowmobile was invented in Wisconsin?
Carl Eliason of Sayner wanted an alternative way to get around during the winter after injuring his foot in 1924. Amateur inventors had rigged up unreliable "snow buggies" by mounting cars or bicycles on skis but Eliason had the idea to start with a toboggan instead.
On top of it he mounted a boat engine, bicycle parts, and rope-controlled steering skis. He worked on this invention for two years in a small garage behind his general store.
In 1927, he obtained a patent for a "Motor Toboggan" and then tinkered with it for more than a decade. Through trial and error he continually improved it, turning out a few custom-built vehicles each year.
By 1939 demand was so strong that Eliason partnered with the Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. of Clintonville to mass-produce the renamed "snowmobiles." Orders came from as far away as Finland. During World War II, the U.S. Army wanted them.
Eliason's earliest snowmobiles are on display at the marvelous Vilas County Historical Museum in his hometown. The annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River and The International Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame in St. Germain are testaments to his vision.
Today's models are fancier than Eliason's but snowmobilers around the world have him to thank for the fun and convenience they provide.
For more Wisconsin history, visit the the Wisconsin Historical Society website at www.wisconsinhistory.org.
You can learn more about Eliason Snowmobiles at www.eliason-snowmobile.com, where there are also more photos of that first toboggan.
The attached PDF is a copy of the original patent for Eliason's snowmobile.