The history of pontoon boats is long and twisting, like the Mississippi River. The pontoon experience stretches from ancient times to the modern age of powerboats and encompasses aspects such as utility, travel, and recreation. The modern pontoon boat is the product of centuries of experimentation and innovation.
Although they were not used as boats, ancient peoples used pontoons for various transportation needs. The ancient Greek poet Homer mentions the use of pontoons in his writings that date back to 800 BC and describes how the Greeks used them to create bridges for marching armies. King Wen of Zhou, the ancient ruler of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty, used a pontoon bridge in the 11 th century BC and the Chinese used pontoon bridges extensively in other military engagements. In 482 BC, the Persian King Xerxes needed to transport an army numbering 400,000 across the strait of Dardanelles and his engineers obliged by constructing a pontoon bridge over a mile long. Famously, Cyrus the Great used animal skin-covered pontoons in 536 BC to get his Persian forces to pivotal historical battles.
These ancient uses of pontoons set precedence for the military use of pontoons as temporary bridges. The U.S. Army has used pontoons for bridges starting as early as 1846 when U.S. engineers experimented with rubberized pontoons for flotation. The Union General F.P. Blair used a rubberized pontoon bridge in the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. In 1941, the U.S. Army started using collapsible pontoons with rubber fabric and the U.S. Navy started using pontoons for ship-to-shore transportation. In fact, military leaders on every side of the conflicts in both World Wars used pontoon bridges to transport their forces.
The use of pontoons for bridges has found civilian applications as well. Permanent bridges have been built across America that use pontoons for flotation. Several pontoon bridges currently span the Mississippi River. Pontoon bridges are especially suited to locations where a river is narrow and it is difficult to sink a pier. Also, much like pontoon boats, pontoon bridges are often utilized in shallow waters.
Ancient Polynesians were the forerunners of the design of the pontoon boat. Through trial and error, this ancient people found that two logs tied together reduce the possibility of capsizing and discovered that hollowing out the logs greatly added to the buoyancy of the pontoon boat. These discoveries led to a phenomenal sailing culture and to this day, the Polynesians are regarded as some of the most accomplished mariners in history. Their multihull designs inspired many pontoon boat designs still popular today, such as the catamaran.
The age of the modern pontoon boat arrived in the 1950s. The innovation of the 55-gallon steel oil drum spurred innovators to use this new invention for a variety of flotation functions. It was not long before individuals began welding oil drums end-to-end to form long pontoon logs.
There is some controversy concerning who was the first individual who attached steel pontoon logs to a deck. Some claim that Ambrose Weeres, a farmer from Richmond, Minnesota, created the first pontoon boat in 1951 by fastening two 55-gallon steel drum pontoons to a plywood sheet. "Mr. Pontoon,” as Weeres was labeled, was later elected to the Minnesota Marina Hall of Fame. However, Weeres' acquaintance and co-innovator, Edwin Torborg, is credited by others as the original inventor of the pontoon boat. Other sources credit companies, such as Kay-Yacht Pontoon, Aqua Patio, or Crest Pontoon for first conceiving of the pontoon boat. The history is unclear and the invention of the pontoon boat may be the product of parallel innovation from a variety of individual sources.
Although the inventor of the pontoon boat is a matter of some debate, what is for certain, however, is that a man by the name of S.S. Deputy debuted an all-aluminum pontoon boat at the 1958 Chicago Boat Show and the popularity of the pontoon boat exploded from that point forward. The move to aluminum was an important innovation because pontoon boats constructed from oil drums had serious drawbacks, such as weight, the propensity for them to rust, and the difficulty – not to mention danger – in welding drums that had stored oil or other toxic chemicals. The aluminum revolution of pontoon boats eliminated these drawbacks.
Aluminum pontoons allowed more creativity in the design of pontoons logs. The first pontoons were restricted by the shape of the steel oil drums. This rounded shape was easy to manufacture by simply welding the drums end-to-end and the logs themselves were quite strong. However, the ends of these steel pontoon logs were quite inefficient in cutting through water, making the vessels slow and difficult to maneuver. In addition, round pontoon logs create inverse buoyancy where the more the round log is submerged, the less buoyancy is produced. Aluminum pontoon logs spurred the creation of U-shaped, or flat-topped pontoon logs. These logs maneuver through the water more easily, do not produce inverse buoyancy, and the flatness of the U-shape provides a stable area for the edges of the pontoon's deck. A more recent pontoon design, the V-shaped log, provides all the U-shaped bonuses as well as more planning for speed and control.
The composition and construction of pontoons throughout the centuries has varied wildly: they have been fashioned from animal skins, wood, copper or tin sheet metal over wood frames; aluminum, and steel. What has not changed, however, is the recognition of the unparalleled stability and utility of the pontoon concept.