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Nautilus: The Lost Empire of Arthur Jones

By William Edgar Jones

This is the inside story of Nautilus as recollected by Arthur’s youngest son. I’ve written about the training methods of Arthur Jones and the brief time Carol and I spent with him at his home base in Deland, FL, in 1973 when Nautilus was just building up steam. But this book is the first time I’ve been behind the curtain with a family member Arthur trusted to be his eyes and ears, write the checks, and do whatever was necessary. He was the “Hatchet Man” in charge of catching and firing the crooks—and there were many.

Arthur’s interest in younger women, faster airplanes, and bigger crocodiles often left Edgar Jones deep in the engine house and able to tell the story like no one else has done.

“Arthur never wanted to be in the exercise field,” Edgar writes. “But once he took over. The dumbbells never stood a chance.”

It’s an intriguing story. “One disaster after another, as you watch Nautilus grow from a small company to one that grabbed the exercise world by the neck and then kicked it in the balls.”

Edgar gives us 45 well-written chapters on the life and times of his father. He doesn’t pull any punches, giving readers the good and the bad.

Arthur was a genius and a prolific inventor in the field of exercise. His interests—mostly constructive—knew no bounds. He was also a womanizer and a man who spent money like there was no tomorrow. His focus usually levitated ahead of his considerable means.

A role model for the ages? Probably not. One is enough.

I’ll cherry pick a few examples to whet your appetite for learning more about the wild world of Arthur Jones.

The Birth of Nautilus

Arthur Jones’s signature invention was the elliptical cam to provide variable resistance through the range of motion in his exercise machines.

Edgar’s telling how that came about sets the stage for his book. He lets us in on a little known family secret.

I knew then and there that I was going to enjoy—and learn—from the book.

Arthur understood that your muscles are stronger in different positions—and that free weights did not vary the resistance in a way needed to fully tax the muscles. His first solution was to attach chains or pulleys to the rising weight in order to vary the resistance—much like the process used in 10 speed bikes. This worked, but crudely. It was not a practical solution.

Arthur’s oldest son, Gary, suggested that they use a cam instead of multiple chains and pulleys. “They argued about it for a while, until Arthur finally agreed.”

The second interesting factoid was that the cam resembled Gary’s bellybutton, which protruded in a spiral shape.

Arthur later said that he choose the name Nautilus, because he didn’t want to name his machines “My son’s bellybutton.”

“This was the birth of Nautilus.”

The Blue Monster

I attended the 1970 Mr. America contest in Los Angeles where Nautilus was on display for the first time. I’d read Arthur Jones' articles in Peary and Mabel Rader’s Iron Man magazine and was excited to see the “Blue Monster.” The machine was huge and blue, thus the name.

The first real Nautilus machine, it was designed by Arthur, built by Gary and him, painted by one of Arthur’s former wives, and upholstered by another. The only four-station machine ever built by Arthur, it included the trademark cam and was plate loaded.

The back story would make Clint Eastwood stand up and take notice. Movie goers would eat it up.

*  *  *

Peary Rader suggested that Arthur attend the Mr. America contest, putting Arthur and his crew into high gear.

A car and a U-Haul trailer were rented, the Blue Monster was disassembled, loaded into the trailer, and they headed out for L.A.

“Arthur had little cash and a maxed out credit card on him.”

After two-and-a-half days on the road nonstop, they arrived and checked into a hotel. “We ended up only staying there one day, and then had to move to another hotel, when the first hotel realized that Arthur’s credit card was maxed out.”

Arthur was just getting started.

You certainly would not have known they were operating on a frazzled shoe string. Arthur and his machine were a big hit.

The turmoil was just beginning.

Orders started to come in when they got home, something for which Arthur was not prepared financially or otherwise. The Blue Monster was the only functioning Nautilus machine in existence!

What happened next would put Horatio Alger to shame. Arthur’s determination and genius came to the fore and performed beyond any reasonable expectations.

Within a few years Nautilus machines were being shipped all over the world. They even designed and produced a smaller Nautilus line for diminutive Japanese buyers.

The fact that Arthur was entirely self-taught—never went beyond grade school—makes it all the more amazing.

*  *  *

Before we move on, another thing of note happened at the L.A. Mr. America. Arthur took third-place finisher Casey Viator under his wing.

He offered eighteen-year-old Casey a job in Florida, which Casey accepted. "Casey's real job, however, was to work out according to Arthur's instruction and under his direct supervision." As evidenced by his 3rd place finish, Casey was already in good shape. Under Arthur's hands-on guidance he was in phenomenal shape the next year and won the Mr. America title. He was to become the poster boy for Nautilus for years to come.

The photo below is a classic, with Arthur and Casey comparing biceps. While Arthur didn't train regularly, he sported an impressive arm when he did. It hardly does justice to Casey, however.

I ran into Casey during a second brief visit to Deland, and I can tell you that his everyday muscle mass was eye-popping.

I also judged at a professional contest in Florida some years later that Casey won. He had one of the most impressive physiques of all time.

Google "Casey Viator images" and you'll see what I mean.

Image result for Casey Viator images


One more highlight and I believe you’ll be ready to explore the rest of Edgar’s riveting biography of the Nautilus years. I'm barely scratching the surface.

 The Biggest Mistake

As noted earlier Arthur was a well-known womanizer. He flaunted his interest in younger women.

This led to his involvement with Terri, who was probably under age when he met her—and possibly when she became his fifth wife.

“I consider Arthur’s meeting of Terri, and all the subsequent things that happened to him because of that, as the biggest mistake in his life.” (I’m only going to give you a taste of Edgar’s disdain. There’s more.)

It began with the use of Nautilus Studios to film beauty pageants, where Terri caught Arthur’s eye.

He was still married to Eliza, who was aware that he continued to have women on the side at times. He apparently went over the line when he hired Terri as a model in advertisements and moved her into a house in Deland.

Eliza divorced him, opening the way for Terri to take center stage. She was a hit, not just with Arthur, but with the male audience that saw her ads for Nautilus.

Arthur took her under his wing as a protégé. He supervised her training on Nautilus machines, taught her to fly, and more. Besides her salary, he gave her anything she wanted. He built a large house for them outside of Lake Helen.

Arthur and Terri eventually divorced, and Edgar was able to total the expenses of having a wife like Terri—he had written the checks. As Arthur phrased it: The fucking you get, for the fucking you got.

“My advice is to leave the younger women for the younger men.”

Last Words

When the new owner took over, Edgar took the opportunity to look back over the years Arthur owned Nautilus. The following is a portion of what he wrote:

Arthur was a genius, but not at business…Like P. T. Barnum, Arthur had a giant circus, with plenty of wild animals to entertain the people (and himself), but unlike Barnum, those animals did not produce income to offset expenses. Arthur ran himself ragged, putting on a show to attract attention, to bring in business, to grow the empire even larger, while at the same time neither seeing or treating the sickness that festered inside. If Arthur had not sold Nautilus, it might have eventually collapsed under its own weight.

I don’t mean to belittle Arthur in any way, I loved him, and he was my father. But I must also be honest.

August 1, 2019

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