The Inventor

George Foote Foss sitting in his Fossmobile

George Foote Foss (September 30, 1876 – November 23, 1968) was a mechanic, blacksmith, bicycle repairman and inventor from Sherbrooke, Quebec. During the winter of 1896, he developed a four-horsepower single-cylinder gasoline powered automobile. In the spring of 1897, he completed his invention: the first gasoline-powered automobile to be built in Canada, which was, later referred to as the “Fossmobile”.

It was in early 1896, during a trip to Boston, Massachusetts to buy a turret lathe for his expanding machine shop, that Foss saw his first automobiles. These cars, electrically driven broughams, were rented out for $4.00 an hour. Foss paid the fee, but unfortunately, after a ride of only half an hour, the batteries died. Returning to Sherbrooke, Foss decided to build an automobile that would address this problem. Gas-powered cars had been known for several years by the time Foss started work on his. It had been a mere nine months earlier that Henry Ford’s Quadracycle was first to drive around the streets of Detroit, Michigan. However, Karl Benz, from Germany, had manufactured a three-wheeled model in 1885. The following year, Gottlieb Daimler, another German, had produced a four-wheeled version. Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea produced the first gas-powered car in the United States in 1893.

George Foote Foss (Circa 1896 – Age 20)
George Foote Foss (Circa 1896 – Age 20)

Early life

George Foote Foss was born September 30, 1876, in Sherbrooke, Quebec. His father, Edwin Sherrill Foss (1838–1919), was born in nearby Eaton Corner, Quebec. His mother, Ellen Sophia (née Foote; (1843–1925), had emigrated from New England and together they farmed in Stanstead, Quebec. They relocated to the nearby city of Sherbrooke, Quebec, where his father became the city’s Auction Clerk.

Marriage and Family

Foss married Gertrude Louise Maclagan (1876–1963) on June 25,1902, and he supported his family by being a machinist, blacksmith and bicycle repairman. They had three children: Marshall Maclagan Foss (1903-1993), Milton Anderson Foss (1907-1975) and Dorothy Gertrude Foss (1908-2008).

Career

Foss was an entrepreneur from about the age of 10. His first job was running up and down the streets of Sherbrooke, Quebec, ringing a bell on action day to help his father, the auction clerk. At the age of twelve he was sweeping out the local post office. By age fourteen, he was transferring bags of mail from the local post office, to the Grand Trunk and Quebec Central Railways, with the help of a draft horse harnessed to a sleigh or buggy.

Foss obtained electrical expertise, while apprenticing with Whitney Electrical Instrument Company (a Penacook, New Hampshire company that had opened a small Canadian factory in Sherbrooke). There he learned to assemble electrical instruments and wind electrical motors. About two years later, he joined the Stanley Electric Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he furthered his electrical experience.

At age nineteen, upon returning to Sherbrooke, Quebec, Foss opened his own shop, offering machining, blacksmithing, and bicycle repair. When he wasn’t working on a piece of machinery or repairing a bicycle for a customer, he passed his time by building model steam engines or model train locomotives. Foss obtained the brass and aluminum casting from Goodman and Wightman in Boston, Massachusetts. After customization and assembly, he would enjoy the models for a while and then would sell them, for less than the cost of the original castings.

Geo. F. Foss Electric & Machine Works
Geo. F. Foss Electric & Machine Works / Bicycle Repair Shop

In 1895 Foss built his own electric 52-volt motor for his boat. The motor was mounted to the top of the rudder with a bicycle chain running to the propeller. He made thirty small storage batteries, which were stored under the seat. The motor was very quiet and worked well for him, as he traversed the Magog and St Francis rivers.

These experiences culminated in 1897, with his completion of the first gasoline, self-propelled vehicle in Canada: the Fossmobile. Foss never tried to market or mass-produce his automobile. In fact, he turned down an offer from William Farwell, president of the Eastern Townships Bank, who offered to finance the production of his automobile. In 1900, Foss made, what would prove to be another mistake. He met Henry Ford, who offered him a chance to invest in a new company that Ford was trying to establish. Foss was unsure of the future of the automobile, so he declined Ford’s offer. Shortly after their encounter, Ford founded the Ford Motor Company.

In 1902, Foss moved to Montreal, Quebec and with some irony, he became an automobile salesman. He had distribution rights for the Crestmobile, which was manufactured in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In this role, he was able to test-drive all the various models as they came onto the market. He eventually had the opportunity to drive a Ford automobile for himself, and he remarked that it was indeed a well-made vehicle.

In 1912, at the age of 37, Foss went back to what he knew best, which was working as a machinist. He opened a machine shop in Montreal, Quebec and became a key contributor of WWI parts. The Great Depression of 1929 – 1941 forced Foss into an early retirement.

Obituary

Foss died peacefully in Chateauguay, Quebec on November 23, 1968, at the age of 92. He is buried at the Elmwood Cemetery in Sherbrooke, Quebec.