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Early RV Patents: Part One (pre-1900)

This is the first in a five-part blog on early worldwide RV patents. This blog covers some of the earliest RV patents granted before 1900.

(Patent numbers are in brackets - the full patents can be searched online by number or name)

The horse-drawn era is often neglected when telling the history of the RV. Prior to the widespread introduction of the automobile at the start of the twentieth century, a few intrepid individuals and families, notably in the UK and the USA, decided to explore the countryside in horse-drawn wagons. In North America the horse-drawn ambulance wagon was popular as a means of transport for health-seekers traveling west to help cure their tuberculosis.

In the UK a small group of wealthy men and women called ‘gentlemen gypsies’ started traveling though the countryside in gypsy-styled caravans. The first of these was Scotsman Dr. Gordon Stables in The Wanderer of 1885. It is the earliest, purpose-built RV that we know of, but it was not patented. Here are some that were.

1. The McMaster Camping Car, USA 1889 (US404,101A)

The first patented, purpose-built RV that has come to light is the McMaster Camping Car of 1889. Alonzo J. McMaster of Lockport, New York developed his camping car based on the design of a Herdic carriage used as an urban, horse-drawn omnibus in late 1800s North America. McMaster explains in his patent:

My invention consists of a camping-carriage the constituent parts of which are so constructed, combined and arranged that all the furniture, bedding and kitchen requirements for camping purposes are supplied in the most compact form, and the carriage capable of use at pleasure either as a sitting-room, bed-room, or kitchen.”

Alonzo J. McMaster patent, 1889

McMaster’s invention had several innovations that set it apart from the more basic ‘camping wagon’ of the period, including a combined driver’s seat and oil stove, a ladder slung under the wagon that was used as a cot for the driver, an ice box with floating inner shelf, a wardrobe door that served as a table, a folding sink, fold-down beds and a toilet consisting of a trap door and bucket below.

William Wallace Wylie, a partner in Wylie & Wilson who operated permanent tent camps for tourists in Yellowstone National Park, was sufficiently impressed with the McMaster Camping Car to order two of them for the 1892 summer season in the park. But the experiment proved short-lived, as established railroad and hotel operators hounded the cars out of the park to protect their lucrative tourist markets.

McMaster later ran into financial difficulties and his camping car failed to take off. It was an idea before its time.

2. The Griffin Road Car, USA 1890 (US423,242A)

The 1890 Road Car of Leander L. Griffin of Scranton, Pennsylvania looked altogether more homely than McMaster’s invention, despite its railroad wagon proportions.

Griffin intended his Road Car to be used as “a traveling store or sales wagon, or for use as a highway dining and living car”. Its canopies and drop-down sides were intended for display or ventilation purposes.

The interior was divided into two rooms, a kitchen and a living/dining/sleeping/display area. Griffin saw potential uses of the Road Car in fairgrounds and for camping parties. No propulsion or steering method is mentioned, but presumably it was to be horse- drawn. We don’t know if the Road Car was ever built.

3. The Brown Hunting Wagon, USA 1894 (US 512,273A)

The Brown Hunting Wagon followed the more conventional lines of a camping wagon.

Its inventor, Thomas H. Brown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, seemed to be a practical person, with much thought going into a horizontally- telescoping stove flue to provide more internal warmth, insect screens and retractable “waterproof aprons” (awnings) on all sides.

Brown also used the concept of insect-proof, fold-out beds that did not encroach on internal space. This was a feature of many early twentieth century North American ‘house cars’ and camping trailers but was rarely seen in Europe. Fold-out beds could be uncomfortable in cold weather, so the fully-enclosed caravan was preferred in the UK and other countries with cold winters. Or perhaps the North Americans were just a hardy bunch.

4. Lawson’s Portable House, UK 1896 (GB1896,14657A)

The earliest-known British contribution to RV patent history is an altogether more grandiose idea from Henry John Lawson with his 1896 patent entitled ‘Improvements in or relating to Portable Houses of Structures’.

Henry John ("Harry") Lawson (1852-1925) is known in part for his design contributions to the development of the safety bicycle and for organising the first London to Brighton automobile rally in 1896. He is however best and perhaps infamously known for seeking to monopolise the British automobile industry in the late 1800s. He sought to do so by acquiring and using third party automobile patents to prevent rather than encourage innovation.

Lawson's idea included a motor of unknown type at one end, steering wheels at both ends, retractable steps and a staircase to a balcony with seats and lighting. He also included sketches of a folding version of the mobile house with movable walls and a lifting roof for ventilation.

It was an altogether impractical idea. No surprise then, that there are no records of it or anything like it ever being built, but it may have sown the seed of an idea in others. It is the first-known patent suggesting propulsion and accommodation be incorporated into a single vehicle, so dare we call it the first ever concept for a motorhome?

You can download a free pdf of all fifty early RV Patents here.

Andrew Woodmansey

December 2023


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