The Superior Piersen: Gas Engines and Telegraph Equipment

By Staff
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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.
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Closeup of the Piersen's flywheel/radiator. The flywheel spins with the crankshaft, centrifigul force pushing cooling water through the radiator tubes. The upper hose feeds hot cooling water to the flywheel/radiator, which is then returned via the lower hose to the bottom of the reservoir just visible in the upper right of the picture.
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Drive side of the Piersen, showing clutch and throttle controls, fuel pump and fuel lines. Visible at the base of the engine is the oil reserve sight bottle. The multi-plate clutch uses 14 plates.
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Closeup of the Piersen’s valve train, showing single push rod actuating single rocker arm. This rocker arm has been brazed due to a fracture it suffered. It is not known if this was a common problem.
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A 1924 letter from the Collis Company to a prospective client for a Collis, nee Piersen, engine. It was accompanied by a brochure extolling the Collis’ design virtues.
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A brochure extolling the Collis’ design virtues.
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A Delco four-cylinder light plant engine (shown) shares space with a 5 HP Genco Light vertical single in Bill Sterrett’s barn.
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A Delco four-cylinder light plant engine shares space with a 5 HP Genco Light vertical single (shown) in Bill Sterrett’s barn.
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It’s obvious that the Piersen/Collis engine was designed with farm duty in mind, as this 1924 Collis brochure illustrates, depicting a Collis Motor employed in a variety of agricultural duties.

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.

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