Clessie Cummins never stopped thinking about how he could make things work better. From the moment he built his first car as a teenager to working on a concept engine in the workshop at his California home in his 70s, Cummins (1888-1968) pursued innovation with a passion few could match.
“Almost all of Dad’s unique and creative ideas were to solve problems that continually arose,” said Lyle Cummins, Clessie’s son. “Thus, his life was one of innovating through adversity.”
Lyle grew up watching his father at the height of his career, in what some describe as the golden age of American inventors. Clessie Cummins would sometimes swap stories with Henry Ford, who liked to keep tabs on what his younger colleague was doing.
Today, Lyle Cummins is working with the Company that bears his father’s name to preserve Cummins history. The Company has established an archive in the vault of the former bank building it recently acquired in Columbus, Ind., USA.
The archive will hold pictures, documents and other artifacts, much of it involving the founding of the Company in 1919 and the partnership between Columbus businessman W.G. Irwin and Clessie Cummins, the driver Irwin hired in 1908.
Lyle Cummins said his father’s formal education ended in the 8th grade after his family moved to Columbus. Clessie told family members he left school because he was tired of knowing more than his teachers.
Clessie’s father was in the barrel-making business and the family moved around a lot. One of the constants in Clessie’s life, however, was his fascination with all things mechanical. He loved finding ways to make rural life easier.
With Irwin’s financial backing, Clessie continued innovating, holding many patents himself. But Clessie Cummins was also a promotional genius, demonstrating the power and reliability of his diesel engines by barnstorming around the country in diesel-powered trucks and buses.
Lyle Cummins and his father were particularly close because they worked together. Clessie Cummins moved to California in 1945 after leaving the Company. At the same time, an influx of military veterans led to a shortage of housing at Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto so Lyle decided to live at home while he pursued an engineering degree.
As a result, father and son worked together on cars and other projects while Lyle was in school and joined forces professionally after Lyle returned several years later for a graduate mechanical engineering degree.
They developed the “Jake Brake,” which preserves traditional brakes by converting an engine into a power absorbing air compressor to slow trucks down during long descents. Lyle Cummins would go on to become an outstanding engineer and an accomplished author and historian.
Dr. John Wall, who served as Cummins' Vice President and Chief Technical Officer from 2000 to 2015, said he’s delighted the Company is working with Lyle Cummins to preserve Company history. He said generations of Cummins engineers will be inspired by Clessie’s story.
“When we talk about ‘Innovation You Can Depend On,’ that’s what Clessie was doing,” Wall said, referring to Cummins’ motto. “And that’s what we need to be doing moving forward, to keep a dynamic innovation and development process alive inside the Company and to deliver real value to our customers.”