Edward Joel "E.J." Pennington's clothes were fancy, his tastes expensive, and he regularly received "fake" telegrams from wealthy men begging him to let them invest with him. He was fond of summoning all of the men of influence in a small city and making impressive presentations to them. He could perform just enough real-world engineering and fabrication to put his marks at ease. He also traveled extensively, which kept his actions from ever catching up with him fully.
Pennington was born in Moores Hill, Indiana, in 1858. His father was a blacksmith, and it was from that technical background that his earliest schemes flowed. He promoted grandiose plans to utilize his patents to produce such varied products as wooden pulleys and freight elevators. His first application for an automotive patent came in 1893, when he was in Chicago, the time and place of the Columbian Exposition where many Americans were first being exposed to electric light. In such a setting, Pennington doubtless found many folks excited to sink their funds into the next big idea.
It was also in 1893 that Pennington made perhaps his most lasting contribution to automotive history, for it is at that time he is credited with coining the term motorcycle. He also founded the Motor Cycle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, which held the rights to that first patent.
The very next year he was in Cortland, New York, persuading until-then-successful wagonmaker C.B. Hitchcock to produce his designs. The prototype engineered by Pennington, however, was incapable of going more than a few hundred feet under its own power before seizing its overheated engine. Hitchcock went into receivership and Pennington skipped town—landing back in Cleveland where he fi led a patent for an "impuncturable" (sic) pneumatic tire that failed completely to live up to the implications of its name.
In 1895, Pennington showed up in Racine, Wisconsin, where he talked his way into a partnership with Thomas Kane, a local manufacturer of furniture and stationary engines for dairy operations. The new company was called the Racine Motor Vehicle Company and the car itself known as the Kane-Pennington. The most notable aspect of the proposed vehicle was its patented "long-mingling spark ignition system" that supposedly permitted it to run on an almost unlimited variety of fuels—including candle wax.
After he failed to produce any of his four promised entries for The Chicago Times-Herald race held on Thanksgiving 1895, famously won by the Duryea Brothers, Pennington embarked for Great Britain. There, he contributed his various patents to the newly founded British Motor Syndicate, an Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers-like attempt to corner the market on automobiles in the United Kingdom.
While in Britain, Pennington took orders and payments for an eponymous car, but it unsurprisingly came to nothing. He also promoted three- and four-wheeled vehicles for military applications, commissioning illustrations showing them wearing armor and bearing machine guns. Engineer F.R. Simms was sufficiently entranced with the concept that he developed it further and produced the world's first armored car in 1899, just as Pennington was fleeing back to the United States.
His first venture back on American soil was another attempt to manufacture Pennington cars (apparently the same design as the Kane-Pennington) in the Barnes bicycle plant in Syracuse. The manager of this plant, E.C. Stearns, would later enter the automotive sector on legitimate terms.
Simultaneously, Pennington developed the concept of the "Automobile Horse" and founded the Pennsylvania Steam Vehicle Company to build them. The product of this manufacturer was called the Tractomobile and it was a fixture to attach to existing horse-drawn vehicles to make them self-propelled. The company offered Automobile Horses separately or pre-attached to a vehicle.
Over the next decade, Pennington continued to promote various automotive ventures. After the success of the Wright Brothers, he began to incorporate aviation schemes into his promotions. He also used his numerous patent holdings in attempting to profit from successful companies— one of his last efforts was a failed 1910 suit against the makers of the Indian motorcycle for infringement.
In 1911, Pennington fell on a Springfield, Massachusetts, street and landed face first in a puddle. He subsequently developed meningitis and died. His passing elicited a lengthy obituary in The New York Times that called him an "Erratic Promoter" and noted that his career was remarkable primarily for the minimal difficulty he had with the law.
Photograph Courtesy Of The National Automotive Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library