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The Firm: Piggins Brothers

Piggins Brothers was a manufacturer of engines in Racine, Wisconsin for about two decades at the start of the 20th century. Its two principals were Charles R. Piggins and Frederick H. Piggins. The former appears to have been the main engineer: family lore relates that Charlie was also the well-dressed, smooth talker, whereas Fred was the inventor. Nevertheless, most of the patents only had Charles' name on them. The first of his six U.S. patents, for a lifting jack and an electrical sensor, show that he was working up new technologies from the 1890s.

They experimentally built a steam car in 1883 and an electric one in 1897 in Racine, according to the Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942 (ed. KIMES, Beverly Rae et al; Iola, Wisconsin, Krause Publications, 1985), which describes the brothers as machinists. They were probably the sons of a Piggins who had been employed in the 1880s at Mitchell-Lewis, a wagon-making company in Racine, and it is possible their training as machinists began there. As far as is known, Charles never married or had children. Fred married and his grandchildren are alive. Genealogical research suggests that they were not related in any way to William S. Piggins, a principal of the K-R-I-T Motor Car Company of Detroit.

The progress of the brothers' business can be traced through advertisements:

While 1901 is the first year the brothers are known to have offered marine engines for small boats, they had already constructed their first experimental gasoline car a year later, in 1902, according to Kimes. This experience convinced them that the internal-combustion engine was more effective than steam as a power source. At this point the brothers appear to have had only two employees, both men, according to Wisconsin Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics data. (It is assumed this total did not include the two owners of the business.) By 1906, they had expanded to a workforce of eight.

Automobile manufacturing mushroomed in the United States about 1903, according to Eugene William LEWIS (Motor Memories, Alved, 1947) and by 1910, about 300 car-making firms had formed. Although Racine was a relatively small city, it had a range of other entrepreneurs who entered the automotive industry. The City Data website contains a useful brief history of this Midwest city on the shore of Lake Michigan. The biggest of these Racine carmakers was the Mitchell Motor Car Co., a business that far outshone Piggins Brothers in scale. Frank L. Mitchell was a wealthy businessman, whose wagon-making works in partnership with William M. Lewis may have employed the Piggins's father, as noted above. Other contemporary Racine enterprises of an automotive nature included Racine Hardware Co., an engine-maker with 60 employees in 1904 and the Pierce Engine Co., which had 50 employees making engines in 1904, the year it branched out into automobiles. Pierce Engine was bought out in 1910 by the city's J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., maker of Case harvesters and one of the ancestors of Fiat's Racine-based unit Case IH.

The following short article appeared in the Racine Times dated 1908 June 30:

Noiseless and Smokeless Motor for Automobiles

Piggins Bros. Invent Machine Which Will Eventually Make Them Millionaires

There is being constructed by Piggins Bros. at their factory, 1113 Sixth Street, a gasoline motor which it is claimed will revolutionize the manufacture of automobile and motor boats.

A Times reporter was shown through the machine shop today and talked for some time with one of the inventors, Mr C. Piggins, a mechanical genius who has given nearly his entire life to the simplifying of motors until now he believes the desired end has been reached. After years of experimenting the present model of motor has been evolutionized. It is claimed the new motor is absolutely smokeless and so noiseless, as Mr Piggins puts it, "that if you were to stand on the curbing with your eyes bandaged you wouldn't know anything had passed."

The firm puts out single, double, four and six cylinder motors capable of developing from 2 to 150 horsepower. At the present time efforts are being made to have them patented and information in regard to this matter will soon be received.

The beauty of the Piggins engines, it is claimed, lies in the fact that they are easy to control, and nearly all of the intricate mechanism found in most automobiles is done away with. In the new motors all that is visible to the eye are the cylinders, several coils running along the top of the motor, and an exhaust pipe on one side. The motors are designed for autos, trucks and motor boats, and have long since passed the experimental stage.

The Piggins shop, a modest two-story frame building, is not large enough to put out the motors in quantities and when the patents arrive it is the desire of the brothers to put their invention in the hands of some large automobile concern who will pay them a royalty.

Mr Piggins said in speaking concerning a certain class of people: "Yes, I have a nice little place here and I believe I put out a good engine. I certainly believe I have been at the business long enough to know something about it. Of course some people always knock. My engine has been knocked, but every knock is a boost, for I know that the motor I put out today is one of the neatest, simplest and most practical on the market today."

Although the engines were marked with the words "Patents Applied For", only one U.S. patent appears to have been granted, number 898 678 in September 1908, for the innovative hollow cylinder casing. There is no evidence that the Piggins Brothers became millionaires or obtained any major royalties, but this would have to be further researched in the records of General Motors and other big companies surviving today.

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© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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