The Superior Piersen: Gas Engines and Telegraph Equipment

The Piersen Manufacturing Company of Topeka, Kan., never quite succeeded, although they produced exceptional gas engines and telegraph equipment.

Wico Magneto

Bill Sterrett’s 5 HP, 1920 Piersen, serial number A775. Unique flywheel/radiator clearly visible, as is Wico magneto, fuel pump at left center, and valve cover indicating the engine’s overhead valve design.

Photo courtesy Bill Sterrett

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There were, as we know, hundreds of manufacturers of gas engines in the early part of the 20th century, and, as we also know, many of those manufacturers disappeared into obscurity, never quite mustering either the financial or manufacturing acumen to succeed in what became a very competitive business. The Piersen Manufacturing Company of Topeka, Kan., falls into the ranks of those who never quite succeeded, even though they produced a product that, in hindsight, appears to have been exceptionally well-made and executed.

The precise origins of The Piersen Company are, regrettably, lost to time, but it is known that the company got its start in the manufacture and sale of telegraph equipment. Records at the Kansas History Center in Topeka show The Piersen Telegraph and Transmitter Co. incorporating on Sept. 28, 1912. An article in the Oct. 10, 1915 edition of the Topeka Daily Capital lauds the company's progress in the field, citing Piersen's Grand Prix award won at that year's Panama-Pacific exposition (supposedly the exposition's highest award) in San Francisco, Calif., for its new, high speed telegraph transmitter that looked and functioned much like a standard typewriter.

Kansas History Center records also show that the company reincorporated on Oct. 8, 1919, as the Piersen Manufacturing Co., evidently to mirror its move into the manufacture of small engines. According to a Sept. 12, 1919 article in the Topeka Daily Capital, E.B. Cushman, of Cushman Motor Works fame, designed the Piersen engine. Cushman was at the time a resident of Topeka, and looking for a company to produce his latest engine design he forged an agreement with the Piersen Company to manufacture his engine. As evidenced by the Topeka Daily Capital article, the Piersen Motor was in full production prior to Piersen's Oct. 8 rein corporation.

It's a fairly safe assumption that Cushman's primary interest in the Piersen Manufacturing Company was the receipt of royalties he would receive by virtue of his design's manufacture. A look at the nameplate of Bill Sterrett's 5 HP, 1920 Piersen, serial number A775, our feature engine, supports this idea, the plate stating; 'Piersen Motor, Designed by E.B. Cushman.'

The Piersen Motor

That these were well-designed engines is obvious. The Piersen incorporates a crank-driven cam driving a single pushrod for valve actuation via a cam lobe, the same lobe also actuating the side-mounted fuel pump. Additionally, the cam gear drives the governor and magneto shaft. Note the mention of a single pushrod for valve actuation. An interesting feature of these engines is the use of a single rocker arm to actuate both the intake and exhaust valve. A spring wound around the rocker arm supplies tension to open the intake valve when the pushrod is not actuating the rocker arm. As the pushrod rises and contacts the rocker arm the intake valve closes, and finally the exhaust valve opens, expending the spent charge.

The engine's sophistication continues to the combustion chamber design, featuring a domed chamber with the valves arranged on either side and the spark plug set close to the center of the combustion chamber. This basic design is used on many engines to this day, and for the same reason Piersen employed it: efficiency. Domed chambers help the incoming fuel and air to thoroughly mix, and the centralized placement of the spark plug helps ensure a complete, even burn during combustion. Pretty advanced stuff for its time.

Perhaps even more interesting is the Piersen's unique cooling arrangement, what Piersen called the Piersen Flywheel Radiator, whereby what normally passes for a flywheel is actually a combined flywheel, water pump and radiator. A normal water pump has a stationary pump body with a spinning impellor to move coolant. In the Piersen design, the impellor is stationary and the pump body, in this case the radiator/flywheel, spins, centrifugal force driving hot coolant from the engine (via a reservoir mounted high on the engine) through the radiator. Once pushed through the spinning radiator, the coolant then flows back to the engine through the bottom of the coolant reservoir.

For a water-cooled engine it's a pretty interesting design, and certainly unique in the world of stationary engines. It's not known whether this design presented any problems in actual service, i.e., leaking radiators, etc., but Piersen claimed their engine could run for 10 hours with only minimal water loss. In some measure the design appears inherently superior to standard forced-cooling systems. There is no drive belt running a separate pump, the mass of the water is used for flywheel effect, and by virtue of the centrifugal force acted upon the water in the flywheel/radiator a very well balanced flywheel should be the result.

The Piersen also uses a multi-plate clutch setup (14 plates housed inside the belt drum), enabling the engine to be started when belted and then put into service at the pull of a lever. Indications are that Piersen used a Berling Magneto, the Wico magneto on Sterrett's engine being non-original. According to a letter in Sterrett's possession, these engines had a retail price of $250 in 1921.

Bill Sterrett has lived most of his life in the Topeka area, and he had heard of Piersen engines years before he bought his. The engine featured here came to Sterrett by way of a radio call-in show in the early 1960s. A Topeka radio station would announce items for sale on Saturday mornings, and one day that included a gentleman selling two IHCs (an LA and an LB), and what he called a Cushman. Sterrett went and looked at the engines, which were being offered as a package deal. The only way to get the Piersen was to also buy the IHCs, which Sterrett promptly agreed to, quickly selling off the IHCs so he could retain the Piersen.

Sterrett's engine is original, save the previously mentioned Wico magneto, and he's even found a spare, non-running engine he relies on for parts - not that he's really needed any. Once, the unique rocker arm broke, but instead of using the spare on his parts engine Sterrett brazed the broken one together, figuring now he still has a spare if he ever really needs it. It's been a while since Sterrett's engine was last started or shown publicly, but it's one of his favorite engines, none the less. Presently, it sits on a specially constructed trailer Sterrett made for hauling his engines to shows.

Keeping it company is Sterrett's collection of engines, including a Reeves, a Waterloo Boy, several John Deeres, a Monitor, a Novo, and further back in his shop some other rare engines, such as a 5 HP Genco Light single-cylinder vertical. Made by General Gas & Electric Co. of Hanover, Pa., these water-cooled engines featured self-starting and were specifically designed to drive a generator attached to the unit. Another light plant engine in Sterrett's shop is a Delco four-cylinder unit, featuring overhead valves and a hinged rocker box cover for easy access to the valve train.

Piersen Closes its Doors

The end finally came for Piersen in 1921. The Kansas History Center records Dec. 21, 1921 as the date Piersen forfeited its incorporation charter. The cause of Piersen's failure and subsequent sale is unknown, but it is always possible that a downslide in the telegraph industry (remember that telephones were fast replacing telegraphs at this time) brought the entire Piersen enterprise down. I have been unable to find any articles detailing Piersen Manufacturing's final days.

Manufacture of the Piersen Motor continued, however, albeit under a different name. The Collis Co., Clinton, Iowa, bought all assets of Piersen at a receiver's sale conducted May 11, 1922. Collis continued manufacture of the Piersen, now called the Collis Motor, at its plant at least until 1924, as evidenced by letters from the company to prospective customers. After that point, Collis seems to disappear.

An interesting engine, unique features, quality design and construction - it would appear to have been a winning combination. For reasons lost to time, the Piersen Motor failed to succeed.

Contact engine enthusiast Bill Sterrett at: PO Box 293, Eskridge, KS 66423.

Richard Backus is editor of Gas Engine Magazine. Contact him at: 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265, (785) 274-4379, or e-mail: rbackus@ogdenpubs.com.