September 25, 2022

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Clockwork mystery a model for spring-powered automobile | History

A case in point is a rather mysterious-looking clockwork device that has been in the collection for decades. Consisting of a box-like brass framework mounted on a wooden platform and filled with various levers, springs and gears, the artifact is marked only with the inscription “Invented July 1890 by Ingersoll Moore.” Coming into the collection about 1950, the device’s purpose was initially unknown, other than that it was likely a patent model or prototype of some kind.







This clockwork device is a partial model of a spring-driven automobile created in 1890 by Bloomington inventor Ingersoll Moore. It includes four motors made of flat-coiled springs connected by gears and wound by a lever on the vehicle’s right side. The vehicle had two speeds and could seat three people in the box on top. At one point, this model likely had four wheels and a raised seat attached.




It’s creator, Ingersoll Moore, was a carpenter who came to Bloomington at the end of the Civil War. Originally from Knox County, Ohio, he and his wife, Lucy, were living in Holly Springs, Mississippi, when war broke out. Although pro-Union, Moore was conscripted into the Confederate army. He allowed himself to be captured by Union soldiers and made his way north, eventually reuniting with his wife in Bloomington after the war.

They settled in a house on North Evans Street, raising three children while Moore found work with the railroad. By the time he created the device now in the museum’s collections, Moore had risen to foreman of the Chicago and Alton’s planing mill and paint shop, working there until his retirement a few years before his death in 1910.

By 1955, with Moore long dead, the exact purpose of the museum’s device was a mystery, one that in that October was put to the Pantagraph’s readers to solve. Whoever solved it would receive a free cup of coffee from reporter Bill Harris.

Described as “full of motion but empty of usefulness,” the contraption remained an enigma, despite a steady stream of visitors to the museum to examine the object, some from as far away as Chicago.

Some progress was made when production engineer and General Electric employee Francis J. Pallischeck took a turn with the device. Although he could not discern what it had been used with, Pallischeck did confirm that the artifact was a “spring driven power plant” designed to generate power for another machine as well as a “darned good piece of workmanship.”

The coffee prize remained unclaimed until the following month when the mystery was apparently solved by Estella Ambrose, who had known Moore and his daughter. According to her, Moore had developed the device to produce and regulate power for electric lights in railroad coaches, a reasonable conclusion considering his employment with Chicago and Alton.

Yet this was not an end to the mystery of Moore’s model. A man of some mechanical skill, Moore was known to have invented other machines, including a combination lawnmower and well pump developed around 1885.

By the late 1880s, Moore had begun designing and constructing several automobiles. These efforts were reported in the first issue of the automobile trade magazine, The Horseless Age, in 1895, and included a series of steam-powered vehicles with three to six wheels. Also listed was another automobile, a three-seater constructed in 1890 and powered by a spring-driven mechanism identical to the museum’s model. A photograph included in the publication confirmed that the object in the museum’s collection was in fact a partial model of this early clockwork car, including everything except the wheels and chassis.

It is presently unknown if Moore ever constructed a full-size version of this vehicle. Although he designed several, none of his inventions appear to have been further developed or patented. Yet part of his legacy is now preserved for future generations as a testament to the long history of innovation in McLean County.

Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column by the McLean County Museum of History. Chelsea Banks is the museum’s registrar.