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The Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company

by

Brian Wayne Wells

As published in the September/October 2004 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine

            As the 1890’s drew to a close and the new twentieth century began, there was a feeling in the air that everything was “new.”  (George E. Mowry, The Era of Theodore Roosevelt [Harper and Brothers Pub.: New York, 1958] p. 2.)  Technology had invented a new, efficient source of power—the internal combustion engine.  This new source of power was to revolutionize industry and agriculture.  The public was demanding ever-newer more efficient power sources.  In answer to this growing demand, development of the internal combustion engine evolved from the large bulky engines to engines that were small, efficient and simple to use.  In first years of the new century, a young man from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by the name of Charles H. John, was intrigued with the idea of designing an engine that would meet the power needs of a broad masses of the public.  As opposed to the single-cylinder “hit and miss” engine which were then being popular, Charles favored the multiple cylinder style of engine.  Thus, he set out designing this own version of this type of engine.

Charles H. John was aided in the development of this engine by A. F. Milbrath.  Following the development of a prototype of their engine the two partners sought to incorporate and on March 12, 1909 they received a corporate charter from the State of Wisconsin which legally incorporated the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company.  (C.H. Wendel, American Gosoline Engines Since 1872 [MBI Pub. Co.: Osceola, Wisc., 1999] p. 557.)  A.F. Milbrath became the Secretary of the new company.  However; because, like Charles John, A.F. Milbrath preferred to work with his hands he also occupied the position of Mechanical Engineer for the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company.  In this position, A.J. Milbrath would continue his inventive ways.  In 1916 he would be granted a patent from the United States Patent Office for a magneto coupling that he designed and built.

The Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing  Company operated out of a shop in North Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  However the Company would soon outgrow this facility.  By 1911, the Company was required to purchase a 6-1/2 acre site at 53rd and Burnham Street in West Allis, Wisconsin.  On this new site the company built one of the most modern engine manufacturing plants in the world at the time.  By 1912, the Wisconsin Motor Company was employing about 300 people in this new facility on both day and night shifts making engine to fill purchase orders that were flowing in to the Company.

At first the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company found that the largest market for their four (4) and six (6) cylinder engines was for installation in heavy construction equipment.  The Bucyrus-Erie Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (formerly [prior to 1893] of Bucyrus Ohio) installed Wisconsin engines in the large cranes and power shovels which they manufactured.

 

An Erie-Bucyrus Company dragline crane working in Erie, Pennsylvania, probably fitted with an engine from Wisconsin Motor Company.

 

Indeed, seventy-seven (77) of these Wisconsin-powered Bucyrus shovels were used on the largest and most famous construction project of the time i.e. the Panama Canal which was completed on August 15, 1914.  (David McCullough, Path Between the Seas: Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 [Simon & Schuster: New York, 1977] p. 609.)  Wisconsin Motor also supplied engine to the Marion Steam Shovel Company of Marion, Ohio.  Marion was the manufacturer o large power excavators, draglines and shovels.  As their name suggests the company relied primarily on steam as a power source for their construction equipment.  (From the web page on Marion, Ohio, located on the Roadtrip America website on the Internet.)  However, the efficiency of internal combustion engines, supplied by Wisconsin Motor eventually won out over steam power.  By the late 1920’s, the Marion Steam Shovel Company had changed its named to the Marion Power Shovel Company to reflect modern realities.  (Ibid.)  The Marion Company also supplied heavy Wisconsin powered shovels and excavators to the United States Corps of Army Engineers for the mamouth Panama Canal project.  Thus, Wisconsin engines were seen every where on the Canal project under at least two different company names—Marion and Bucyrus-Erie.

 

Former President Theodore Roosevelt at the controls of one of the large Erie-Bucyrus Company cranes in the Panama Canal during his 1909 trip to Panama.

 

The role played by Wisconsin engines in the construction of the Panama Canal, was glamorous and the connection with this huge construction project was used by the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company for advertising purposes.  Nonetheless, the contracts with construction equipment manufacturing companies were small in comparison to the mushrooming market that was soon to occupy nearly all of the production capacity of the Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company.  This was the automobile market.

The vast number of automobile companies that sprang up in the early 1900s had no time to develop their own engines.  They appreciated the smooth running engines that Wisconsin Motor had available.  Thus, many small, but up and coming, automobile manufacturers looked to Wisconsin as an outsource supplier of engines for their automobiles.  Supplying this new burgeoning market, propelled the Wisconsin Motor Company into period of rapid expansion.  Automobile engines proved to be the most popular market for the Wisconsin Motor Company. Continue reading The Wisconsin Motor Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin