Automotive enthusiasts know that Rhodes built and drove the first self- propelled vehicle in Kalamazoo. He later confessed that he feared the steam-powered wagon might explode because he used a gas burner to power the steam engine.
He was only 26 years old when he demonstrated his contraption on Rose Street in 1891. His youthful recklessness overcame sober consideration of the risks he was taking. Rhodes never perfected this vehicle that he hoped would carry passengers between Kalamazoo and Gull Lake. He later sold it for $150 even though he had invested more than $3,500 in its development.
After this initial setback, Rhodes moved to Chicago and took a job with the Austin Manufacturing Co. as a mechanical engineer. While working for Austin, he developed perhaps his most important invention—a pneumatic dumping device for railroad cars carrying gravel, dirt, and other bulk material.
Cars equipped with the device greatly simplified the building of the Panama Canal and were also widely used on the frontlines during World War I. Rhodes also developed a machine for building roads in the 1910s, a decade that saw growing political pressure for better streets. Rhodes returned to Kalamazoo in 1903 but remained on Austin’s payroll until 1920. He also began working on his own projects. He started the Kalamazoo Fishing Tackle Co., for which he invented a mechanical swimming frog and a wooden minnow. He sold the enterprise to William Shakespeare Jr. in 1905.
In 1921, he created his most profitable invention, inspired by an old fruit canning jar. Tinkering in a workshop behind his home on Douglas Avenue, Rhodes fitted a cap with a vented spout onto a canning jar and marketed it as a device for dispensing oil into a car engine. With automobile sales booming in the 1920s, Rhodes sold the oil bottles by the carload throughout the United States and around the world. As the profits rolled in, Rhodes became wealthy. He sold the rights to the oil bottle and with the income was able to devote all his time to inventing.