Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Wood, Gar

Garfield Arthur "Gar" Wood was a Detroit area inventor, businessman, and a builder and driver of racing motorboats. While some of his inventions were revolutionary and are still used today, he is best known for his love of motorboats, breaking the world water speed record five times while motorboat racing. He is also credited with devising the small, swift PT (patrol torpedo) boats of the U.S. Navy in World War II. 

Born on December 4, 1880 in Mapleton, Iowa to a large family of 13 children, Wood's interest in boating appeared to be a product of environment. His father was a seaman who owned and operated a steamboat on Lake Osakis, Minnesota. At age 12, a young Wood earned his wages by rowing fishermen around the lake for one dollar a day. By the age of 17, he worked as the pilot of an inspection boat for a railroad construction company. 

Working as a pilot on the inspection boat gave Wood his first chance to indulge his inventive nature. With the goal of making the boat move faster, Wood invented the first down-draft carburetor. His next invention resulted from his working as a lightning rod dealer. In order to demonstrate the ability and importance of lightning rods to potential buyers, Wood invented an induction-coil device that simulated lightning. 

Following his education at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, Wood was employed as a marine engine mechanic, and he began to create a number of inventions that brought him significant profit. His first major invention, created in 1911, was the hydraulic lift which is used today on dump trucks. This led to the creation of Wood Heist Co., later known as Gar Wood Industries. Among all of his inventions, the most significant was the Gar Wood Load Packer, created in 1938. This invention employed hydraulics within garbage trucks to compact the trash, and it is still used by garbage trucks today. 

With the newfound wealth from his inventions, Wood was able to return to his childhood love of boating. He made his first racing motorboat, the “Miss Detroit,” in 1916, and raced it on the Detroit River. Following the construction of this boat, Wood built 10 more boats named the “Miss Americas,” which led him to obtain nine Harmsworth Trophies and five world speed records. The fastest speed he ever achieved was 124.86 mph in 1932. The accomplishments Wood made on the open sea are those for which he is most remembered, especially in the city of Detroit. 

Wood eventually retired to Fisher Island in Florida.  There, he continued to tinker with new ideas until his death on June 19, 1971.
Written by Ben Robinson and Julia Teran


Gar Wood with two boats in which he set records, 1928 - 2009.004.174

Gar Wood (right) and Kaye Don in their racing overalls, 1932 - 2010.052.002

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