The WILSON TRANSIT CO., a pioneer in the use of safety equipment on the Great Lakes, was founded as a freight-transportation business by Capt. Thomas Wilson in 1872. Beginning with a single wooden ship, Wilson prospered, building several more steamers, including the Spokane in 1886, the lakes' first steel steamer. The firm also pioneered in the use of electric lights on the Yakima in 1887. When Wilson died in 1900, the company owned about 14 ships, adding 7 new ones by 1910. To improve navigation, Wilson Transit ships were the first on the lakes to use the gyro-compass in 1924. The William C. Atwater of the Wilson line was the first lake ship to use a radio telephone, in 1934. Throughout much of the 20th century, Wilson Transit specialized in bulk cargo shipping; however, with the use of more modern ships, its fleet had been reduced to 12 by the 1940s. The firm's name was changed to the Wilson Marine Transit Co. in 1957 and in 1967 it became a division of Litton Industries, Inc.

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