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David E. Ross papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSA 188

Scope and Contents

The papers of David Ross, inventor, businessman, and chair of the Purdue Board of Trustees. Materials include certificates, deeds and other legal papers, genealogy materials, correspondence, newspaper clippings, speeches, photographs, scrapbooks, and artifacts documenting the life and career of David Ross. His papers cover a wide variety of subjects relating to his life and various farms and land he owned, and Martin Steel Products, as well as subjects relating to Purdue University, such as athletics, the airport, the Board of Trustees, the construction of the Purdue Memorial Union building, WBAA, the Glider Club, and the Purdue Research Foundation. Please see PDF Finding Aid for collection inventory.


  • 1870 - 1943


Access Information

Collection is open for research.

Copyright and Use Information

No use restrictions.

Biographical Information

David Edward Ross, farmer, inventor, manufacturer, financier, and Purdue University trustee and benefactor was born on August 25, 1871 on his family’s farm four miles from Brookston, Indiana. His grandfather, also named David Ross, was one of the earliest residents of Lafayette, arriving in 1827- one year after the community was established. He had, for a few years, tried living in a small community in Illinois called Chicago, but returned to Lafayette assuming that community would not amount to anything. The elder David became a prominent businessman and land speculator; purchasing a large tract of land in White County which he gave to his son George and daughter-in-law Susanna Booth as a wedding gift. It was on this farm that the younger David was born.

Farm life for the family was isolated, because the area was primarily swamp land and difficult to travel. One of Ross’s early foundational moments was just before two of his sisters died of diphtheria. Two area doctors were called to the home to treat the dying children. One was schooled in the traditional ideas of medicine whereas the other, who studied in Europe, believed in sterilizing instruments and germ theory. Amidst disagreement between the two doctors, Ross' parents took the advice of the doctor educated in Europe who insisted that the remaining children leave the house so that they did not catch the disease which saved the lives of Ross and his other two siblings.

At an early age, Ross became interested in engineering; he would frequently disappear from his parents only to be found examining the workings of a steam engine or furnace. During his final year of high school he decided to attend Purdue University. His father seriously objected to this idea, considering it a waste of time. It was only after a persuasive relative in Lafayette offered to provide room, board, and tuition did his father agree to let Ross leave the farm.

When Ross entered Purdue there were 463 students on campus. His performance as a student ranged widely from bottom of the class to the top. One of his most interesting professors was R. A. Fessenden who had been an assistant to Thomas Edison. Some students thought Fessenden crazy because he talked of taking pictures through the body (x-rays), powered flight, and wireless telephones. Fellow students thought much the same of Ross because of his long talks with Fessenden. Fessenden inspired Ross with willingness to explore the unknown. Ross graduated from Purdue University in 1893 with a degree in electrical engineering, and returned to the family farm.

After college, a nation-wide depression and typhoid fever prevented him from pursuing a career. Ross was instructed by the educated doctor from his childhood to spend two years in the open air. He did this by taking over the family farm from his father. His first project was opening up more land for cultivation. He developed a plan to create a thirty-foot-wide ditch over ten miles in length. The township trustees bought into the plan and it was completed. His next venture, with the financial help of some friends, was to start the local telephone exchange, the Prairie Telephone Company, where he was the president, chief engineer, and sales manager.

During the first decade of the twentieth century Ross had become interested in the automobile industry. He was still on the family farm and did not own one, but his interest was sparked by his subscriptions to technical magazines. By 1905 he began working on designs for automotive gears. By April of 1906 Ross had applied for three patents dealing with differentials, speed changing, and gear shifting.

In 1906, two of Ross’s uncles convinced him to form a company around his inventions and with one other relative they established the Ross Gear and Tool Company. The company grew quickly and Ross continued to apply for patents for automotive gearing. He also designed the machining tools for the gears the company developed. Despite all his inventiveness the company was frequently in danger of bankruptcy. One of Ross’s most famous decisions was turning down a contract from the Ford Motor Company. He feared rapid expansion based on one limited contract. The business did improve, and it became a significant supplier for the trucking industry, racing, and yachts.

In 1919 a separate company was formed. Fairfield Manufacturing would specialize in differential gears and Ross Gear and Tool would continue to focus on steering gears. In 1927 the company was recapitalized and Ross, the major stockholder, sold part of his holdings and retired from the day-to-day management.

Ross had a strong sense of civic duty and he tried to instill this in his employees, in ways such as insisting they participate in jury duty no mater how important their jobs were to the company. In 1914 he was elected to the Lafayette City Council where he proposed many civic improvements. In 1920 he became reacquainted with Purdue University when he was asked to serve on an alumni committee to raise money for the construction of the Purdue Memorial Union. He became not only a leading member of the committee, but also a leading donor.

A year later, a state law was passed that provided three of the appointments to the Purdue Board of Trustees made by the governor should be on the recommendation of the alumni. Ross was the first recipient of this law. Although athletics was of little interest to Ross, he did understand that it was important to many alumni who could be potential donors to the University. Soon after becoming a trustee Ross was introduced to another alumni humorist and author George Ade. Their first meeting resulted in collaboration in the funding of the Ross-Ade Stadium. Ross then went on to develop plans for a number of other athletic facilities. The scope of the project required a bond issue. Since state law did not allow for Purdue to assume bond issues a separate Ross-Ade Foundation was formed. The new stadium was dedicated in 1924.

As a trustee, Ross was concerned about how students were taught. He believed in creativity and originality in problem solving, not recitation. He also encouraged finding out how many students had invented something, and with the Dean of Engineering, A.A. Potter, toured various companies and other universities to determine how Purdue graduates were faring in industry compared to graduates of other institutions.

In 1927 Ross became president of the Board of Trustees. That same year Josiah K. Lilly, president of Eli Lilly and Company, became a board member. Together, and with the cooperation of industry, they worked to establish research and scientific discovery as part of the educational process at Purdue. This resulted in the creation of two agencies to develop these relationships: the Department of Research Relations with Industry and the Purdue Research Foundation. An early result was the establishment of Rostone Incorporated, which was a company founded on discoveries made by Professor Harry C. Peffer, head of the School of Chemical Engineering, and Richard L. Harrison, a graduate student. Ross, Peffer, and Harrison formed the company which was concerned with synthetic stone for building materials.

Ross was said to look at a Purdue fifty years in the future. This was particularly true of expansion. With this in mind he bought 180 acres of adjoining land and gave it to the Purdue Research Foundation. He also conceived of the idea for the Purdue Airport and purchased the 157 acres with his own funds. When the need for a civil engineering camp was brought to his attention he purchased a 136-acre tract for experimental surveys. Ross also provided half a million dollars toward retirement funds for presidents, deans, and their widows. Most of his donations were anonymous and he was known to loan money or give jobs to students who could not afford to continue their education. He also made loans to members of the greater Lafayette community or local organizations knowing he would never be repaid.

In 1932 he returned to Ross Gear and Tool Company as its president, due to the death of his cousin who had been president, and took on a county government office. A few years later he became a member of the Indiana State Commission on Governmental Economy. The committee he was a part of had the mission to study education in the state and make recommendations for its improvement. In 1938 he conducted a study of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving for the United States Department of the Treasury. Some of his other activities included being President of the Association of Governing Boards of State Universities from 1929-1930 and beginning in 1935, he became a member of the original Board of Governors and Vice President of the Farm Chemurgic Council, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Over a thirty-four year period Ross received at least one patent per year and in some years as many as six. In total he received 88 patents, including 32 for automotive steering gears and 15 for building materials. His other endeavors included inventing the now ubiquitous highway road reflectors and materials for prefabricated houses, plows, home furnaces, dirigibles, diesel engine, ventilating systems for school rooms, railcar brake drums, as well as designing houses and other structures.

David E. Ross, the major figure in the development of Purdue University in the twentieth century, died June 28, 1943 after a year long illness. He is buried on Slater Hill on the Purdue University campus.


15.00 mss._boxes

Language of Materials


David E. Ross papers
Keertana Marella
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Edition statement
Third edition. Collection description was first completed 2008-05-12.

Revision Statements

  • 2020-04-03: Collection identifier updated from 0000DER1 to MSA 188 by Adriana Harmeyer.
  • 2020-04-20: Collection description updated by Keertana Marella
  • 2021-03-26: Biographical Information updated by E. Sandgren with sketch written by David Hovde

Repository Details

Part of the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Repository

504 Mitch Daniels Boulevard
West Lafayette Indiana 47907 United States