In Memorium – John Wilcox

By Staff
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John Wilcox in 1966.

From a post on Harry Matthew’s, the gas engine community was saddened to hear of the loss of John Wilcox on Sept. 1, 2010. The following is an obituary written by Dave Hawkins and Mike Murphy:

Today is a very sad day, as John Wilcox passed way after a brief illness that led to complications including pneumonia, which proved fatal.

John was born before the war and turned 73 a few weeks ago. He developed an interest in old engines in the ’50s, buying his first engine when he was 14, which turned out to be an International LA from a local junk yard. In the late ’50s, John became interested in large engines when he discovered early examples still running in Ohio oil fields.

His interest sprang at a time when the oil companies were phasing out the turn of the century engines, either abandoning the pipelines or modernizing the pumping power. John was able to save many examples of very early gas and oil engines by purchasing them before the scrap man got a shot at them.

Working mostly alone, John moved many very large engines that were located in very remote, hard to reach locations. Others were situated in very awkward locales, in the basement of grain mills and old factories.

Because of his growing interest in the early history of oil transport through pipelines, John saved many examples of National Transit equipment that was built for use on Standard Oil pipelines throughout the Standard before the anti-trust acts broke up the company. Many of the engines were designed by John Klein, engineer for National Transit, and John Wilcox popularized the name “Klein” and the model designation of the National Transit engines.

All of the “Klein” engines that came off of the Eureka and Buckeye pipelines of the Standard were saved by John in the ’60’s and ’70’s as they were phased out, and these now exist in private collections and on display at museums such as Rough and Tumble and Coolspring.

John also was a great inspiration to others when it came to collecting the large gas engines, encouraging fellow collectors by his own example of perseverance in dragging in the big ones. As a co-founder of the Coolspring Power Museum, John was instrumental in the effort to preserve the early engines for future generations.

As an author, John was prolific in the ’60s and ’70s, writing articles for Gas Engine Magazine, and later he wrote lengthy and delightful articles on Otto for the Coolspring Bores and Strokes publication.

In 1980, John personally restored the 1867 Otto and Langen atmospheric engine on display at Rough and Tumble. This engine had been in a fire at the Stevens Institute in New York City, and was fortunately saved by Bill Willock during the war. The example running at Rough and Tumble is one of the oldest engines running in the world, having been sent to the Roebling’s in 1867 to see if those great engineers could sell early gas engines.

Quite the Renaissance man, John was prolific in other fields including spelunking and cave cartography. John is world famous for personally making the connection between the Flint Ridge and Mammoth cave systems in the early ’70s. This event was memorialized by a late ’80s National Geographic special on caves, where John is featured on camera discussing the events that led to the discovery.

John has also been quite involved in genealogy concerning his own family, researching ancestors and visiting graveyards around the country searching for his past. He also spent a great deal of time running down the graves of the famous engine designers from Ohio that worked at firms such as Springfield, Columbus Machine Works, Superior Gas Engine, New Era, Callahan, etc.

A highly educated man, John received his bachelors and masters degrees in mechanical engineering in 1960 at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, his native city, and returned to earn his PhD in 1969. The OSU College of Engineering honored him as a “Distinguished Alumnus” in 1986. He spent his professional career with the Columbus Laboratories of the Battelle Memorial Institute, receiving several patents and worldwide recognition for projects as varied as front wheel drive concepts, an early prototype electric car, steel belts, golf club swinging machines and tank tracks. John retired at age 50 to pursue his interests in engines and other fields, while performing consulting work for industry.

John also collected industrial items from the vanished age, including machine tools, printing presses, Linotype machines as well as mechanical calculating machines, typewriters, safes and clocks. Recently, John had been working on antique clocks for himself as well as a local antique shop. He also recently repaired, maintained and weekly would wind the tower clock in Plain City, Ohio.

John was married to his caving sweet heart from the ’70s, Pat Wilcox, nee Crowther, whom he met while caving in Kentucky. John helped Pat raise two daughters from a previous marriage, and now they have six grandchildren.

John has been a great inspiration to myself and many others over the years, as he was a font of knowledge on early engines and many other things, and he will be sorely missed. Friends may consider memorial gifts to: Cave Research Foundation, 4700 Amberwood Dr., Dayton, OH 45424 or to Coolspring Power Museum, Box 19, Coolspring, PA 15730.

Thanks to Mike Murphy for assistance with this obituary.

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