History Of The Snowblower
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So who did invent the snowblower or snowthrower? We need to begin by qualifying that question since there are a number of answers depending on your interest. Some notable firsts would be:

  • The first machine to clear snow by throwing or blowing it
  • The first fully mobile snow clearing machine?
  • The first domestic walk-behind snow blower
The latter is the one people generally think of and have the most interest in. It is also the one that has the most elusive answer.

Chapter 1 So where did it all begin? Looking back in time we need to consider where would there be a need to remove snow while having a source of power available? The need and the enabling power were found on the railways of the U.S. snowbelt and in Canada. The earliest documented art belongs to a Toronto dentist known as J/W Elliot. His 1869 patent #390 design was never built.

The story next takes us to Orangeville Ontario, Canada where we find Orange Jull, a gristmill operator and inventor. In 1884 he applied for a patent and was subsequently granted patent #18506. Jull did not have the means to build and commercialize his invention so he contracted the local Leslie brothers to build the machines.
A Jull/Leslie rotary snowplow
The Jull/Leslie machines were self powered but not self propelled. A locomotive was used to move the machine. The Jull design consisted of 2 large inline fans rotating in opposite directions. The lead fan chewed into and pulverized the snow while blowing it back into the discharge fan, which propelled it into the sky. Due to clogging problems it was simplified to a single fan. Further changes to effectively control the discharge were made including a movable deflector and pitching impeller blades. Production was moved to the Cook locomotive works in several locations. Additional machines were built under license. Finally 5 machines were "home built" by end users with the last one finished in 1971. In all 146 were built.

Later work consisted of fortifying the design to deal with the hazards of the unknown. Tracks were often blocked with fallen trees and other debris that were concealed in the snow. Legend has it that in one case a herd of cattle were trapped and buried under the snow on the rail bed. As the rotary snowplow progressed forward beefsteaks were flying. They remained in production into the 1950s and a few are still in service today. Many survive as museum pieces with an occasional demonstration.

Following his collaboration with the Leslie Brothers Orange Jull went on to create a next generation machine. This design utilized a screw auger to collect the snow. It was not as effective, especially in deep snow and only eleven were ever built. Sadly all have been scrapped.

All of the available photos and drawings of these machines are on enthusiasts sites where they are best viewed.. A Google search using Jull snowblower as keywords will deliver hours of reading and nostalgia. On You-tube you may be able to find " The Return of Rotary #1 ". A search for "rotary snowplow" found this video.

Some neat links:

Chapter 2

Our next installment finds Arthur Sicard, circa 1894, an 18 year old working on the family dairy farm in Saint-Leonard-de-Port-Maurice, Quebec. Snowstorms being frequent and dairy products being perishable motivated him to find a better snow removal means.

Sicard Snow Remover Snowblower

Motivation found inspiration one day when he saw a new piece of farm machinery called the thresher. If this machine could gather grain perhaps he could use the design to gather and move snow. It wasn't long before he had built and tested his first prototype however it bogged down in snow. His notion was dismissed by those around him and he went on unsupported in his pursuit. He went on to make a life for himself in Montreal until finally in 1925, 31 years later he astonished the people of that city with his "Sicard Snow Remover Snowblower". The first sale was to the nearby town of Outremont, in 1927.

The Sicard name has been synonymous with large snowblowers ever since. My hometown had a Sicard unit mounted to an old Michigan front end loader for several decades.

Chapter 3

The curious question then becomes when did the walk behind domestic snowblower emerge? The Toro website makes the claim that Toro introduced the first snowthrower, the Snowhound in 1951. Ariens entered snow moving the market in 1952 with an attachment for it's Yardster series. The Ariens Sno-Thro series was launched in 1960. Simplicty followed in 1962. The earliest confirmed Gilson dates back to 1966. Meanwhile dozens of others launched product lines.This of course is in the context of domestic walk-behind units. If you have an early machine I'd appreciate a picture and brief story. Of all of the archival material I have amassed nothing points to an earlier machine. The 1951 Toro was not the driveway behemoth than many of us use today as can be seen in the photo.

An early Toro Powerhandle
with snowblower attachment

In my Vintage Machine Showcase you can get a sense of the diversity found in the early machines and a search of patents will reveal even more radical designs.

Machines of modern proportions began to emerge in the 1960's. The small-scale brands slowly disappeared and most were gone by the 1980s. The Gilson snow blower line launched in 1966. The full sized gear drives continued to evolve through the decade and with the introduction of the Unitrol machines in 1970 Gilson had 2 full size formats that evolved into the 1980s. The small Gilson single stage models were discontinued after the 1970 model year.

Just as the small scale models were fading away the industry was turned on it's head with the introduction of "personal sized" 2 stroke machines. The models were easy to handle, store and pay for. They pack enough power to handle a significant storm if you are patient enough to let it eat the elephant one bite at a time. Gilson was an early player with some patent action and the Snow-Cannon was a hit.

A 2 cycle Gilson Snow Cannon

Horsepower grew over the years. Early machines were in the 3-4 horsepower range. In 1970 8HP was the big machine. By 1980 most brands included a 10 or even 11 HP machine. Today 13 HP models easy to find.

The 21st century brought power accessories. Manufacturers are offering heated handles, motorized chute rotators and you can find machines that have onboard battery power to allow electric starting when away from household power. While engine powered lighting is nothing new it is becoming far more common.

The other big story is consolidation. Where there used to be scores of suppliers there are now essentially 7. Promotional grade machines (I'm being kind here) are made by MTD, Murray and AYP. Quality machine are built by Simplicity, Ariens, Toro and Honda. Virtually any machine you can find on the market, regardless of the brand is from one of these sources. The exceptions as small players such as attachments for BCS tillers. The age of the mass merchandiser has forced everyone to slash cost in pursuit of market share. The quality brands often sell machines in several tiers with one targeted at the promotional grade competition.

What do the coming decades hold for snowblower users? The market moves slowly. While nearly every homeowner owns a lawn mower the snowblower market is confined to the snowbelt region and many property owners choose not to own such a machine. That being said it is a small piece of the pie that has a hard time attracting R&D money. The basic concepts have been quite stable for along time. Ecology has been a big driver of engine refinements and this is likely to continue. Much of the recent work has been value engineering with most of the benefit going to the manufacturers. The brute strength built into the machines of yesteryear is gone forever. We can only hope that future machines will not be overburdened with fragile accessories. Other than that we will all have to wait and see what blows in the future.

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Page created 1/27/2007 **** Page updated 11/14/07