John E. Gilson was the third generation in his family to be involved with the Gilson Mfg. Co. of Port Washington, Wis., his father, John Gilson, being president, and his grandfather, Theodore Gilson, co-founder of the company in 1850.
Several application letters for various gasoline engine designs and improvements can be found at the U.S. Patent Office from John E., who became involved in the making of an internal combustion engine around the turn of the last century. On these applications, he identifies himself as an inventor, the assignor to the Gilson Mfg. Co., and a citizen of the U.S., residing at Port Washington.
The first Gilson engine catalog has testimony of satisfied customers dating back to July 1904, so it would be fair to assume the first Gilson engines were marketed around that time. In the initial Gilson catalog is a 4 HP vertical Style A, a vertical Style B in 2-1/2 and 4 HP sizes, a 6 and 8 HP Style C sideshaft horizontal engine and finally a small 1 HP air-cooled engine, which was the predecessor of the Style E that was to come a few years later.
The Gilson Mfg. Co. Ltd., of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, was incorporated in 1906. At first, it was under the direct control of the Gilson family who had named an American, Edw. Barelman, as president and general manager of the newly built plant. In 1907, the first “made in Canada” Gilson engines appeared, which were identical to engines built in Port Washington.
By 1907, the Gilson catalog indicates both Port Washington and Guelph locations on the front cover. The Gilson Style B was short-lived, as it is not shown in the 1907 catalog. But the Style A, then rated at 4-1/2 HP, and the Style C were still offered. A new air-cooled Gilson was introduced as a Style E in 1, 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 HP sizes. Also, built on the same general lines as the Style E air-cooled engine, a hopper-cooled Style D was introduced. The Style D was available as either a 2 or 3 HP engine. To complete the Gilson line, the much larger Style K was offered in 12 and 15 HP sizes.
The main addition to the 1908 Gilson catalog is a 2-cylinder Style E, rated at 5-1/2 HP. Also in 1908, the 3 HP Style D was re-rated to 3-1/4 HP.
By 1909, the Gilson Style C sideshaft had been discontinued, the 3-1/4 HP Style D had been re-rated to 3-1/2 HP and the Style K line was offering a new 6 and 8 HP to join the 12 and 15 HP that had been introduced two years earlier.
By 1910, the Gilson Style E twin-cylinder air-cooled engine had disappeared and was replaced with a single-cylinder 6 HP air-cooled Style F, which much resembled the smaller Style E. A 6 HP was also added to the existing Style D engines. The Style K engines were beefed up to 7, 9, 12 and 16 HP. A new hopper-cooled Style G was introduced in 1910 and came as 12 and 16 HP.
In 1911, the Gilson catalog mentioned the addition of a 4-1/2 HP Style D to the already existing 2, 3-1/2 and 6 HP engines. Gilson also added 12 and 16 HP engines to their Style G line.
The end of 1912 would mark the end of an era for Gilson engines. By Feb. 15, 1913, the Gilson engines would have an all new style and look; in fact, some of the new styles were being advertised as early as mid-1912. For the first time, the “Johnny on the Spot” appeared on the market. It was called the Style JS and was rated at 1-1/2 HP. At about the same time came the 60 Speed engines. The smaller 60 Speed was the 1-3/4 HP Style U and the larger version was the 3 HP Style X. To complete the line of Gilson engines, they made the 5 HP Style T, the 6 HP Style Z, the 7 HP Style Y and the 9 HP Style W.
In 1914, the Gilson-family-owned companies were sold. The Port Washington operation went to Harry Bolens, an important and long-time employee of the company, who retained the Gilson name for several years. That same year, the Guelph assets were bought from Gilson to become all Canadian. Prior to 1914, the two operations were one and the same, but in 1914 they became two distinct companies – though they both retained the name Gilson. Under Bolens’ reign, Gilson engines continued production in Port Washington for less than three years. Canadian Gilson engines were built until 1929 or 1930.
The very last of the Port Washington-built engines were the Heavy Duty engines of 1915-1916. While Gilson engines had always been red in color, the new line-up of Heavy Duty engines were green and came in 4-1/2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 15 HP sizes. Few were built, as they are very seldom seen today.
In 1915, Gilson in Guelph was on its own and needed to establish some sort of identity of its own. However, it was not ready to change the Gilson line of engines that had been introduced quite successfully a couple of years earlier. Also having been painted red since the beginning, the decision was made to paint the Gilson engines green with gold and black trimmings, and also to have the words Gilson-Guelph cast in raised letters on both sides of the hopper. The brass nametag had Port Washington removed from it, only mentioning Guelph.
The 1-3/4 HP Johnny on the Spot was their best seller and a larger 2-1/2 HP version was also available. The Gilson Wizard engines were built from about 1925 to 1929. This was the very last line of Gilson engines to be put on the market. To part with the tradition of earlier Gilson engines, which were mostly gasoline engines of the hit-and-miss type, the Wizards were throttle-governed, kerosene engines, sporting the Webster Tri-Polar-Oscillator.