Dymaxion Brings History Channel to Webster  
Thursday, June 3, 2010

The History Channel, represented by Noel Murphy Productions, dropped in on OldeWebster.com editor Carla Manzi recently.

The Waterhouse Co., established in 1928 to build automobile bodies and located on Tracy Court in Webster, brought Mr. Murphy to Ms. Manzi’s Thompson Road office, shared with Sterling Realty Co.

The search was for an automobile called Dymaxion. R. Buckminster Fuller, an architect and inventor, introduced a design for mass-producing a house by using 1920s technology and design. He developed an automobile along similar lines, automotive historian Fred Roe reported some years ago.

Mr. Roe and the late Ronald Siff, once associated with B&W Footwear Co. of Webster, produced a feature about Waterhouse automobile bodies for a national automotive magazine, using photos owned by Bernice (Waterhouse) Sheldon of Dudley. Ms. Sheldon’s father, Moses Sargent Waterhouse, was in charge of interior design for Waterhouse custom bodies.

As anyone looking for data on 1930s cars with Waterhouse signature tags might, Ms. Manzi introduced her History Channel visitor to Raymond Belsito, who rebuilds antique and classic automobiles from a garage on Lake Street in Webster.

Sure enough, Ray, who has rebuilt, repaired and maintained Packard chassis with custom bodies by Waterhouse, filled most of the holes in the Waterhouse story.

Four prototypes of the Dymaxion were built at a plant in Bridgeport, Conn., by W. Starling Burgess, an aircraft and yacht designer, automotive historian Roe discovered.

There’s nothing to say that auto builder Burgess had any part in designing the Dymaxion, but news photos that I remember suggest that the vehicle had an airplane-like design. It was three-wheeled, one in the front and two in the rear, and looked as if it ought to have wings.

The Waterhouse Co. was involved in the Dymaxion project in the mid-1930s, manufacturing parts and sub-assemblies, again according to Mr. Roe.

Ray Belsito provided a sidebar about the Dymaxion: One of the prototypes was involved in an accident while being driven from Webster to Southbridge. Ms. Manzi’s research suggests the accident was minor. Otherwise, a crash involving a three-wheeled car might have been in the headlines, even in the mid-1930s.

The Dymaxion project was completed in time, but Waterhouse Co. was not compensated in a timely fashion, discovered Mr. Roe. “Apparently the amount was significant enough that some officers of the firm took over some Maine resort property owned by the Dymaxion enterprise,” he said in his review of the Waterhouse Co. “Waterhouse got paid.”

This squares with information given to me some years ago by the late Janet E. Malser, one of the first office workers hired by the fledging Waterhouse Co. She credited Roger Clapp, one of the founding partners of the custom auto body company with S. Roberts Dunhan, and Charles L. Waterhouse, with the unusual form of bill collecting.

Ms. Malser was founder of the annual benefit walk and run event at Killdeer Island on Webster Lake. The races are now managed in her honor. She saw Mr. Clapp as a financially prudent person who cared first for his family, and who saved from his resources to provide scholarships at the Harvard Business School, from which he and Mr. Dunhan had graduated.

The Great Depression put a damper on custom auto body production, and Waterhouse drifted into different enterprises in the years before World War II. Waterhouse Co. manufactured canvas tank covers for the Army during the war and established a division that produced high-quality gauges for the military. The division was named Clapp Instruments in the Waterhouse co-founder’s honor.

It wasn’t until the first H-bomb was released over Japan that Clapp Instruments learned they had manufactured components for the bombs.

Waterhouse Co. turned to the manufacture of upholstered furniture after the war. The business was sold in the 1950s but remained in Dudley until 2003.

How all of this might work for the History Channel remains to be observed.
-Courtesy Of
Telegram & Gazette

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