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.

| December/January 2001

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

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.