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History Hits: Forgotten Technology—Moto-Meter

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Recently, I turned 24, and the feeling of growing older as I am leaving my early 20’s and entering my mid-20’s was slammed home when I was ordering the replacement computer for my current dying PC; customizing the computer, I was faced with the option of a CD/DVD drive optical drive. I decided not to select it, because most everything is digital these days, however, realizing that the PC optical drive was obsolete—something I remember being introduced into computers in my youth—made me feel old, knowing there is a generation that won’t even know what it is. Realizing that the floppy discs that I played my first game of Mortal Kombat on are already forgotten, made me feel older still. Sadly, nothing can escape the creep of time, and all this reminiscing got me thinking; what technologies from the history of the automobile have simply been bypassed by technological progress, hardly mentioned today, and remembered less and less and time continues to go on?

Luckily for me, finding a few technologies that have been left to history was as simple as going on a Jay Leno’s Garage binge, as his favorite type of vehicle, the “original and unrestored” example of car, showcases many such technologies. One of the most stand-out technologies to me from my YouTube marathon is the Boyce Moto-Meter, an engine-monitoring technology from the early 20th century. Perched on top of the radiator, the Boyce Moto-Meter was a simple thermometer that was visible from the driver’s seat, allowing a vehicle operator to check an engine’s temperature without leaving the car.

Time 13:47 is the Moto-Meter’s moment in the spotlight.

The inventor of this device was one Harrison Hurlbert Boyce, a German immigrant who couldn’t help but notice the abundance of engines overheating around him during the 1900’s and 1910’s. Rather than using a pressurized cooling system utilizing a water pump to circulate coolant as we do now, the ‘Thermosiphon’-style of engine cooling was used during this time. This relied on cool water entering the engine, heating up as it cools the engine, and then ‘rising’ because it is now hotter than the cold water that has yet to enter the engine, thus forcing the cold water back to the front to repeat the cycle. This didn’t stick around as a cooling technique because it was fairly terrible, and as such, motors of all sorts would commonly overheat, without the operator having a way to tell the temperature during operation. Boyce figured that being able to tell when an engine was warming up would prevent many of these overheating events, and as such, he devised and patented in March 1914 what would become known as automobile internal-combustion engine temperature system and apparatus. Just as that was long to type, it was also long to say, and it was eventually shortened to temperature indicating instruments, which was still quite a mouthful. Eventually, the term ‘Moto-Meter’ became commonplace.

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A classic Boyce-branded Moto-Meter.

The device that Boyce created can be simplified as a radiator cap with a thermometer built in to it. When the temperature got to the ‘red zone’, bad things were probably going to happen to your engine, just as today, and the goal of the device was to prevent this from happening. While the warning would occasionally come too late to save the engine, having an ‘ok’ warning was miles ahead of having no warning at all. Early on, racers adapted the technology, as their engines were under the most stress, and as it caught on more and more with the ‘go-fast’ crowd, it trickled down into being desired on a normal, day to day vehicle. The Boyce Moto-Meter—there were other non-Boyce Moto-Meters, who would promptly be sued into non-existence by Boyce with his patent—obviously started life as an aftermarket modification, however manufacturers did eventually contract Boyce to equip some cars with them, featuring custom back plates with the name of the marque. Before this time, some dealers would offer them as incentives to get people into the door; the modern analog would be floor mats.

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A Boyce Moto-Meter with a Ford back plate. This is a particularly fine looking example.

Eventually, over 10 million Boyce Moto-Meters were produced, equipping everything from automobiles and trucks, to boats and tractors. The introduction of the dashboard mounted temperature gauge—similar to what we are used to today—put an end to the Boyce Moto-Meter. Despite Boyce filing a patent for a dashboard mounted unit in 1917, companies were not bound to his design, and as such, the Boyce factory’s output slowed to a trickle. By 1934, the Boyce Moto-Meter factory closed its doors for good. Mr. Boyce was not deterred however, and had already started a new company with a partner, forming the Boyce-Veeder Corp. to produce engine lubricants and fuel additives.

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A 1931 Packard’s radiator cap/hood ornament. By this point, the Boyce Moto-Meter was obsolete.

Mr. Boyce probably saved a few engines with his device, while also starting a stylistic trend which has some influence too this day. The Boyce Moto-Meter started an industry of ‘dress-up’ companies which created artistic hood ornaments to cover up the ‘pedestrian’ Moto-Meter. These could feature sculptures, lights, and other ornamental material, and led to the creation of the hood ornament stylistic trend.

Reticle
An RAF SE5A Gun Sight, for any other nerds like me who care about these things.

I’d have mine fabricated as a fighter-style reticule.

Like the forgotten technology showcase? Like the article and I’ll write some more! Remember to share the article with your friends and social media peeps, and comment down below if you have any questions. For the ultimate Boyce Moto-Meter information depository, visit motometercentral.com.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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