When he was a Lehigh undergraduate, James Packard is reported to have wired his room so that he could open or close his windows and doors without getting up, a practical demonstration of his aptitude for invention and mechanical devices. His senior thesis, “Design of a Dynamo Electric Machine,” and his membership in the Bicycle Club foreshadowed the direction of his industrial career. After graduating in 1884 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Packard worked for the Sawyer-Mann Electric Company in New York City.
Packard improved many of the products of the infant electronics industry, and earned more than 40 patents for his devices, including one for the Packard electric lamp in 1889. He returned to his hometown of Warren, Ohio, in 1890 and, with his brother opened the Packard Electric Company, to manufacture electric bulbs. The firm, later known as the New York and Ohio Company, manufactured electrical transformers, fuse boxes, and cables in addition to lamps. While in Ohio, he began tinkering with horseless carriages, and in November of 1899, produced his first car, “Ohio Model A.” Packard began manufacturing cars in 1900 as a subsidiary of his electronics firm and then formed the Packard Motor Car Company in Detroit, Michigan, in 1903. He concentrated on research and made many improvements to automobile engines, transmissions, chassis construction, ignition and carburization systems and brakes.
The “Ohio Model A” – one of the premier automobiles of its day – sits in the lobby of Packard Laboratory, which was built in 1928-29 to house the College of Engineering and Applied Science through Packard’s generous gift. He also provided a large endowment to the university. In 1928, Lehigh bestowed upon Packard a posthumous honorary doctorate of engineering.