CC Biography: The Fitting Life and Times of Oscar Ulysses Zerk

Recently we read about the involvement of various Austrians in regard to potential parentage of the Volkswagen.  Inspired by an article sent to me by reader George Ferencz, let’s explore the life of an Austrian who undoubtedly made an indirect contribution to Volkswagen – along with likely every other brand of automobile produced worldwide after 1929.

His name was Oscar Ulysses Zerk.

Zerk was born as Oscar Zerkowitz in Vienna on May 16, 1878.  Zerk’s father, Barnhard, was in the textile business and his family had possessed a degree of prominence since the days of the Holy Roman Empire.  Incidentally, Oscar had an older brother, Adolf, who would later become a well-known photographer.  Some sources list a second brother named Max.

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, in uniform, undated. Credit: Library of Congress

For reasons never determined during researching this article, Zerk was not accepted to any institution of higher learning.  Apparently the intervention of Emperor Franz Josef changed this, allowing Zerk to attend college in the city of Brno in what is currently the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic.  It was during this time Zerk invented an electrically controlled loom for weaving brocade fabric and employed it at his father’s factory.

At some point after graduation, Zerk spent several years working in the English textile industry and returned to Austria around 1905.  It was at this point the automobile industry caught his eye.  Zerk had soon designed a six-cylinder engine along with an automatic transmission.  However, nothing can be found for whom these designs may have been intended as well as if any of it came to fruition.

Zerk was intrigued with steam propulsion and in 1907 came to the United States to study the steam powered cars being produced by White Motor Company in Cleveland, Ohio.  Zerk’s trip across the Atlantic was aboard the RMS Lusitania, the ship whose sinking would later serve as the catalyst for the United States entering World War I.

The choice of studying White branded cars is an interesting one.  White Motor Company was established by Rollin White in Cleveland, Ohio, and was an offshoot of a company his father, Thomas, had founded.  Thomas H. White had founded the White Sewing Machine Company, making for a degree of commonality between Zerk and the younger White as both had fathers involved with the textile industry.

As for the White automobile, it started in a corner of the White sewing machine factory.  On July 4, 1905, a White steamer would set a speed record of 73.75 mph.  A White steamer was also one of the first automobiles used in the White House fleet.  In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt allowed use of one by the Secret Service when following his carriage.  Later, President William Howard Taft had one purchased, enjoying his ability to blast steam at reporters he found annoying.

Zerk’s trip to the United States proved to be fruitful.  He was intrigued with the lubrication methods being employed on automobiles at the time, convinced he could improve upon it.  Zerk subsequently founded a company in Cleveland, Ohio, and began production of an early version of the well-known Zerk grease fitting.  However, Zerk was forced out of the company in 1913.

Zerk returned to Austria and entered into military service due to World War I.  After the war Zerk married and returned to the United States.

In 1924, Zerk’s company, Allyne-Zerk, was purchased by Stewart-Warner of Chicago.  Whether Allyne-Zerk was Zerk’s original company, or a second one he helped create, has not been able to be determined.

It appears Zerk relocated to Chicago as part of the acquisition.

As part of this new company, Zerk was a stockholder and consulting engineer.  At that time, Stewart-Warner owned the Alemite system, itself a form of lubrication system which had been developed subsequent to World War I.  Zerk acquired a patent (ultimately one of around 200 or so he would hold) for his updated Zerk fitting in 1929.  This, combined with the Alemite system, was quite the boon for lubrication in all manner of machinery.  It was so popular, the word “alemite” was considered to be a verb for a while during the 1930s.

Some further clarification is needed.  The initial Alemite system employed grease fittings.  However, the Alemite company deemed the fittings developed by Oscar Zerk as being superior to the Alemite fittings.

Additionally, the ad above could appear to be misleading given its reference to Bassick Manufacturing Company.  Edward (although there has been reference to him as “Edgar”) Bassick owned Alemite but was also associated with John K. Stewart, owner of the Stewart Company.  Stewart, a maker of speedometers used in the Ford Model T, along with other automotive instruments, had purchased the Warner Instrument Company, creating Stewart-Warner.  All the various acquisitions make things tricky to navigate.

Tiring of Chicago, Zerk relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1939.  He purchased the mansion which had belonged to Henry S. Cooper, one of the three brothers who founded Cooper Underwear Company, which is today known as Jockey International.  Zerk dubbed the house and property as the “Dunmovin’ Estate”.

Zerk, suddenly one of the five richest persons in Kenosha County, drastically remodeled the house after his purchase.  It was ultimately a private museum of his various collections.

It must be pointed out Zerk was a multitalented man.  In addition to his contributions to machinery lubrication, Zerk made developments in hosiery, brake systems for trolley cars, faster freezing ice cube trays, vibration resistant camera tripods, and automotive refrigeration.  He even developed a personal sized coffee bean grinder decades before anyone else did so, but Zerk never saw a need for further expansion of the idea beyond his home use.

Thus, Zerk had an abundance of talents and interests.

Zerk, approximately 1954

But it was the events of February 8, 1954, which help lend the most insight into the person who was the then seventy-five year old Zerk.

It was like any other night.  Zerk, widowed at the time, was reading upstairs after his staff had gone home.  It was around 6:30 pm when three armed persons entered through an unlocked side door.  They rushed into the room where Zerk was sitting and threw a towel over his head.  Zerk, however, had had ample time to study their features.  He would later relate all three were between thirty-five and forty years of age, all were 5’6″ to 5’8″ tall, and the heaviest was around 185 pounds.

The three tied Zerk to a chair and demanded to know where his safe was located.  Saying he did not have one, the trio found keys to a closet than contained a key set to open his various display cases throughout the house.  Zerk knew they were informed as the trio knew where to look to obtain his late wife’s mink stole.

The criminals took somewhere between 500 and 1,000 items.  Zerk had amassed a very impressive collection of Oriental jade, diamonds, sterling silver, and the largest privately owned collection of carved ivory in the United States.

The burglary lasted until roughly 8 pm when the trio loaded up, taking $25 from Zerk’s wallet along with his 1951 Chevrolet.

Zerk’s property soon began to reappear in the Chicago area.  Three men, all between 35 and 40 years of age, were soon arrested.  All had Mafia ties along with having various murder and robbery charges against them from other crimes.

Ultimately four people went to prison after Zerk’s testimony.  One interesting tidbit is Zerk was able to identify the three assailants via photograph after having only briefly seen them.

Oscar Zerk would marry for the fourth time in August of 1954.  He lived the remainder of his life at Dunmovin’ Estate, passing away at age 90 in 1968.  His wife, Dorothy, lived there until her death in 1995.

Incidentally, Dunmovin’ Estate was used as the setting for the 2000 movie The Last Great Ride.  Sadly, Dunmovin’ Estate fell into disrepair and the house was demolished in 2012.

Without Oscar Zerk, the ease of keeping machinery running may not have been equaled.  It is estimated at the time of Zerk’s death in 1968, somewhere around 20 billion of his grease fittings had been produced.