Anyone familiar with machinery of any kind, especially in the days before modern sealed and lubricated-for-life bearings, knows about grease fittings. My first job after high school was grease monkey at a Nash dealership. Back then, each car must have had 15 or 20 of the little things. I don’t think today’s cars have any.
You know what I mean: the little ball-shaped gadget at every place on a machine of any kind where two metal parts rotate, slide or otherwise move in contact with each other. A lot of people call these Zerk fittings or just Zerks, but they should more properly be called Bystrickys or Alemites (I’ll explain later).
Farm machinery made from the 1930s until the present day has always been a heavy user of grease fittings. With wheels and coulters, a plow might have only a few, but a threshing machine or combine seemed to have a hundred (especially when you were all but standing on your head trying to reach each one, wipe it clean and slip the nozzle of a grease gun on the thing straight enough so the grease would go into the bearing, rather than squirting out to the side). And this ritual must be repeated at least twice a day, more often in dusty conditions. Many a pure-minded farm lad has lost his religion trying to get to that one fitting that some diabolical engineer thoughtfully placed just 2 inches out of reach. But enough about me!
Necessity drives invention
In the early days of slow speeds and iron-on-iron bearings (sometimes with a brass or babbitt insert), open oil holes, into which a shot of oil was frequently squirted, sufficed. Of course, lots of dirt got into the holes, so spring-loaded, self-closing metal caps were added, and, in some cases, automatic drip or mechanically operated oilers. Bearings that required what was called “hard oil” (grease to you and me) had a grease cup. The cup held a day or two’s worth of grease and when the top was periodically turned down, grease was forced into the bearing. Henry’s Model T Ford used grease cups and oil holes exclusively.
Keeping all those cups and holes filled took a lot of time and, as usual, a guy who had to do the job thought of a better way. Early in the 20th century, Arthur Gulborg had to keep the oil cups full on all the die casting machines in his father’s Chicago factory, the Alemite Die Casting & Mfg. Co. In about 1916, he devised a screw-type grease gun and a straight, hollow fitting with a spring-loaded ball in the end to keep the grease in.
A flexible hose on the end of the gun had a slotted nozzle that was twisted onto the fitting and was held there by a small projection on each side, similar to the small automotive light bulbs still used today. After greasing, a small brass dust cap was twisted onto each fitting. Gulborg’s gun used a plunger on the end of a threaded rod at the end opposite the nozzle. A T-handle on the outer end of the rod was turned to force the plunger and the grease into the fitting and then into the bearing.
“The Alemite High-Pressure Lubricating System” didn’t really take off until 1918, when the U.S. Army was persuaded to try it out on some of the Army’s White trucks. Gulborg’s system made the lives of Army truck drivers and mechanics much easier; in July 1918 the system was adopted Army-wide. Soon automobiles were using the Alemite system as well.
Alemite introduced the “button-head” grease fitting in 1922. The heavy-duty, low-profile fitting was used on heavy equipment like crawler tractors; a “junior” button fitting was used on early Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Austrian finds a better way
Meanwhile, Oskar Ulysses Zerkowitz (born in 1878 in Vienna, Austria) became interested in the newfangled motorcar. He had been trained in mechanical engineering and worked in the textile industry. One account says he developed the first 6-cylinder engine and a crude automatic transmission in Austria before coming to the U.S. in 1907, when he changed his name to Oscar Ulysses Zerk.
Zerk had the idea for a new automobile lubricating system, and established a company in Cleveland to manufacture it. The Zerk fitting was smaller than Alemite’s and had a tapered nipple onto which the gun nozzle was slid and held sealed by the pressure of the operator pushing a pistol-grip gun handle to force out the grease. Reportedly Zerk had contracts with many U.S. automakers and employed 500 men.
In about 1913 or ’14, he sold out and returned to Austria (possibly due to the war) where he served in the Austro-Hungarian army as a captain. Zerk married and had a daughter before returning to Cleveland in 1920, when he started Allyne-Zerk Co. to make his Zerk line of grease fittings and hand grease guns. At the end of 1924, Allyne-Zerk was sold to Bassick Mfg. Co., Chicago. Edgar Bassick was also associated with the Stewart Co. that made speedometers for Model T Fords.
The Bystricky influence
At about the same time, Stewart merged with Warner Instrument Co., a longtime supplier of automobile instruments, to form Stewart-Warner, which then bought the Alemite and Bassick companies. Now both the Alemite and the Zerk systems were owned by one firm. While Chrysler and others used Alemite fittings, Henry Ford, beginning with the 1928 Model A, used Zerks exclusively.
In a patent application filed in March 1933, a Stewart-Warner engineer named Joseph Bystricky outlined his improvement on the Zerk system that didn’t rely on pressure by the operator to maintain the seal between gun nozzle and fitting. The grease fitting’s business end was formed of a small ball over which annular, spring-loaded jaws inside the gun nozzle would slip and lock the nozzle to the fitting.
Stewart-Warner retained the Alemite name for its lubrication line and the new system was announced as the “Alemite Specialized Hydraulic Lubrication System,” that had already in 1934 been “adopted by 99 percent of motor cars made today. And, hailed by automotive engineers as the greatest advance since the invention of the original Alemite system over 17 years ago.”
Today’s grease fittings are basically identical to the ones invented by Joe Bystricky back in 1933, although Bystricky himself is forgotten, as are Arthur Gulborg and Alemite. For some reason, though, Oscar Zerk’s name remains attached to grease fittings. Fame is capricious, and can be fleeting, but not always – even though probably not one person in 10 has a clue as to why Zerk fittings are called, well, Zerk fittings. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email.