Thomas K. Nelson: A Gasoline Engine Pioneer

Thomas K. Nelson and his Nelson gas engine were among the first gas engines.

Thomas K Nelson

An original certificate from the 1900 Shelby County Fair Assn. commending Nelson Gas Engine as exhibitor of the “best gas engine” at that year’s fair — which begs the question of how many other gas engines were displayed at a county fair in southwest Iowa in 1900.

Photo By Loretta Sorensen

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Thomas K. Nelson, inventor of the Nelson stationary gas engine, was born in Denmark. He came to America with his parents in 1872. The family lived on a farm in Shelby County, Iowa.

In Past and Present of Shelby County, Iowa (1915), author Edward S. White described Nelson’s early years and career: “Here (Shelby County) he went to school and spent his early years working on the farm. Even in boyhood, however, Mr. Nelson was mechanically inclined and, following this inclination, he moved to Harlan and secured employment with Cass & McArthur, who were engaged in manufacturing plows, cultivators, buggies, wagons, sleds, scoop boards, etc., also doing repair work of all kinds. He remained with this firm about six years and mastered practically every branch of the business.”

Anxious to establish his own business, Nelson purchased a half-interest in a Harlan, Iowa, blacksmith and machine shop. In 1892 Nelson sold his interest to take a position as foreman with Sunderland & Anderson, a new machine shop, foundry and planing mill in Harlan. Nelson later worked short stints at Ogden Iron Works in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Phoenix Foundry and Machine Co., Omaha, Neb., eventually returning to Harlan where he bought out Sunderland & Anderson.

In business for himself, Nelson performed all kinds of machine and foundry work. In 1898 he developed a gasoline engine and put it on the market. At the time, gas engine manufacture was in its infancy. In White’s account, he quotes Nelson saying that it was impossible to find any published account containing information on design and construction of gas engines, which were then considered little more than a curiosity.

Nelson Gas Engine & Automobile Co. was established by 1903. Two years later, in 1905, Nelson produced his first automobile. He drove the two-seat touring car with a 3-cylinder air-cooled engine while taking orders for stationary gas engines. “Mr. Nelson is working on a gas tractor, a 2-cylinder opposed (7-1/2-by-8-inch bore and stroke) and also a 4-cylinder vertical (6-1/2-by-8-inch bore and stroke) and has high hopes that these tractors will meet the same degree of success that the Nelson engine has always enjoyed,” White wrote in 1915. “The company built a 2-cylinder traction engine about eight years ago. This engine has been in almost constant use ever since and has proved itself a success.” FC

Read more about Nelson Gas Engines in 8 HP Nelson Gas Engine: A Family Heirloom.