At only seven years old, pulling the starter rope on my older brother’s Boston Whaler is no easy task. After a dozen tries, I finally call for my dad who is on the other dock dealing with the fishing gear. In what seems to take hours, he walks over to me and shakes his head. Before we had even gotten to the Marina, Dad asked if I needed him to start the engine, and of course I declined, wanting to feel like a “big kid.” With one simple tug from my father’s strong arm, the old Briggs & Stratton engine purred to life, as if brand new. Switching into the forward gear, I roared off the dock in search of circling birds, a clear indicator that fish were nearby.
My great- grandfather, Stephen Foster Briggs, was born on December 4th 1885, in Watertown, South Dakota. At South Dakota State University, he majored in engineering, which was a passion of his as long as he could remember. There, his ideas for building engines and other inventions came to life. Throughout his college years, my great-grandfather developed a simple 6-cylinder engine that was revolutionary during the early 20th century. Eager to get into the rapidly growing automobile and engine industry, my great-grandfather was introduced to investor, Harold M. Stratton. The two hit it off, and went on to start the Briggs & Stratton Motor Company in 1908.
Originally, the intentions of these men were to create affordable cars, like “The Flyer.” The Guinnes Book of Records lists the Flyer is the most inexpensive car of all time at $125-150. Released in 1922, the Flyer is a small, simple, lightweight, two-seat vehicle with a wooden frame that doubles as the body and as the suspension. A small gasoline engine is mounted on a fifth wheel, or motor wheel, to drive it. Though not their most successful endeavor because of its impracticality, it was one of my favorites.
My grandfather had a classic red Flyer at his house in Illinois. He wouldn’t let us start up the engine (falsely claiming it didn’t work, but I knew it was because he was afraid we would crash it), so my siblings and I would push ourselves around and around the huge circular driveway until it became dark and we’d get dangerously close to the surrounding bushes, threatening to scratch the beautiful paint job. Watching from the upstairs window, I jealously saw many take it out for a spin at my grandparents summer parties, some as undeserving as little children would have been after a few drinks. Shiny and red, it looked like the perfect child’s toy, but it was actually one of the more complicated and technologically advanced of my great-grandfather’s inventions at the time it was introduced in 1922. With a 2 horsepower engine and it’s amazing affordability, it was a unique automobile that no one else had on the market.
A failed attempt in automobiles brought Stephen Briggs back to the inventing room, this time focusing more on engines for other uses, and finally coming up with the stationary Type “P” engine. This revolutionized the...