Witte, pronounced “Witty,” is a storied name, in both the diesel and gas engine realms. The origins of the Missouri based company start in 1870, when August Witte emigrated from Germany and set up the Witte Iron Works in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a small establishment at first but grew quickly due to Witte’s German work ethic and experience in metalworking. Son Edward Witte, who had emigrated with his parents as a toddler, was apprenticed in the factory to learn the various skills from the bottom up. He is reported to have gone East to study more before coming back in time to take over the business from his retiring father in 1886.


Edward Witte (1869-1958) had studied steam engine technology and the new-fangled internal combustion engine. At the time Edward took over from August, he had a gas engine prototype running and by 1894, the company had begun manufacturing gasoline engines. This continued at an increased pace and the company became known nationally as the Witte Engine Works.

Doug Swisher’s horizontal Dieselectric is an early one, built in 1937. Rated at 5 hp at 850 rpm, it displaces 85 ci from a 4.25-inch bore and 6-inch stroke. The horizontal engines of this era had open, roller-tip rocker arms which require occasional manual lubrication. Internal lubrication is via splash and Timken tapered roller bearings support the crankshaft. The cast iron base serves as the fuel tank and holds 5.5 gallons of fuel. The engine weighs about 900 pounds and the generator set is 1,350 without a radiator. It used a Bosch APF single-plunger pump with a 6mm diameter plunger and with the 10mm stroke, delivered 60 cu-mm of fuel. At a full load, the engine used about 0.30 gallons of fuel per hour and could run about 18 hours on a tank of fuel.

Witte’s engine business grew and he became a master at mail order sales, selling direct or through authorized distributors all around the world. Reportedly, Witte began the development of a diesel engine in 1923 and a production diesel was introduced in 1934, a 5hp single cylinder horizontal that went on sale in 1935. Based loosely on their 6hp Model K gas engine, it had an external rocker gear and was mounted on a cast-iron base that also served as a fuel tank.

The horizontal generator set in this era came standard without a radiator and used a themosiphon system without a water pump. A simple tank system was commonly used, the 5hp engine requiring a 110 gallon tank, as were various types of radiators with belt-driven fans. Swisher has installed a radiator with an electric fan that originally was a hot water radiator in a building and it cools the diesel adequately. This engine provided power for the Shinew Garage in Portage, Ohio, and had been permanently mounted in the building. Shinew’s was a legendary local hardware store that carried obsolete parts for everything from cars to watches.

In the ‘30s, the electrification of rural America was far from complete but all Americans wanted the joys electricity could bring. To cover that gap, a variety of manufacturers developed small generating plants. One of the more popular uses for small stationary engines was as rural electric plants on farms, non-electrified businesses and homes. One of Witte’s first applications for the new diesels were for these small generators and they were popular because of their fuel efficiency. Witte advertising states that Witte generators were used to power the “Little America III” base during Admiral Byrd’s ‘39 explorations of the Antarctic.

The generator is driven by two belts from the flywheel of the engine. Doug recently had the generator rebuilt and has not yet connected the belts. Output of the generator was optionally 3000 watts DC or 3500 watts AC. This one is single phase 240/110 AC.

In 1935, Witte offered 3 and 5 kw (3,000 and 5,000 watts respectively) “Diesel-Lite” AC or DC generators. Their ads touted electricity production at less than one penny per kilowatt. Powering them were 5hp (at 850 rpm), 85ci (4.25 x 6-in bore and stroke) and 10hp (at 720 rpm) 157ci (5 x 8-in. bore and stroke) horizontal diesels. By 1936, the name had been changed to “Dieselectric” and the ‘37 price books listed the 3kw AC model at $800 and the 7.5kw AC unit (the DC was 10kw) at $1100. That wasn’t chump change: converting to ‘17 bucks, that’s $13,600 and $18,699 respectively. Some models had integral thermosiphon radiators and some required the installer to add a cooling system. These engines were available without the generator for use as power units.

In 1937, Witte introduced some all new vertical diesel engines with a 3.5 x 4.5-inch bore and stroke (43.3 ci). Initially, the output was 3 hp at 1200 rpm and a direct-drive generator produced 1600 watts AC or DC early on and later could make 3 kw. In 1937, these cost around $600 and had a built-on radiator. Later came a larger 4.25 x 5.25 bore and stroke (75.5 ci) engine that made 9 hp and powered a 7.5kw generator. Belt drive units of the same capacities were also made. Powerplant versions of the vertical engine were made as well as a marine propulsion variant with a special mounting base and marine transmission.

During World War II, Witte developed some inline engines, a 36hp four and a six. Little is known about these engines and it isn’t clear if they even saw production. Witte built 12,500 engines, most of which were used in Dieselectric units. In 1944, United States Steel purchased Witte and operated them as a separate entity in their Oilfi eld Supply Division. In 1947, Witte introduced the B and C series horizontal engines, which were based on the older designs but with enclosed valvetrains and other improvements.

In the 1950s, Witte specialized more and more on oilfi eld operations and developed natural gas fueled versions of their engines. They introduced two new horizontally opposed 2-cylinder engines, the Models 100 and 120 in the ‘60s. In 1967, Oilfi eld Supply sold the diesel and Dieselectric part of the business to Lister (later to be known as Lister-Petter) and the natural gas engine lines were marketed under the name “Oilwell” or “Oilwell-Witte.”


This ‘46 Witte 3KW Dieselectric generator is powered by a 37ci (3.25 x 4.5-in. bore and stroke) model AD vertical engine (also known earlier as the VD-11) that makes 4 continuous and 4.8 maximum horsepower at 1200 rpm. It’s indirect-injected and delivered a 19:1 compression ratio with a wet sleeve and an iron piston. It is direct-coupled to a 3000 watt AC generator and has an integral thermosiphon radiator and electric start. Pressure lubrication is used and the engine could be fi tted with an oil fi lter. With a maximum load, it would consume 0.278 gallons of fuel per hour. It is mounted on a cast-iron base that doubles as a fuel tank and hold 5 gallons of fuel. This engine originally supplied power for a lighting kit on a ‘46 Lima power shovel. It is owned and displayed by the Doherty family, who are deeply involved in the Tri-State Engine and Tractor Association. In a strange twist of fate, the Lima shovel in which this engine was originally used was recently donated to the Tri-State group, who have it up and running again. If you attend the annual Tri-State tractor and engine show, you can see both run.

In 1991, Arrow Engine Company acquired the Oilwell-Witte line as well as much of the remaining old parts stocks. Arrow built a small number of Witte engines from stock parts and since then has been one of the few remaining sources for vintage Witte diesel engine parts.DW




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like


When you think of products from Italy, tractors probably don’t immediately come to mind, yet over the years some of the most unusual and effective tractors have come from there.

Tractor Talk: 1923 Advance-Rumely Oil Pull

Well, it’s not a diesel, but it runs on fuel oil. Kerosene to be exact. Kerosene became a popular fuel for early tractors because it was so inexpensive. Later, a similar, slightly more…


We’ve talked a lot over the years about how the big, high-powered tractors evolved. Nowhere were they needed more than in the plains states, where you could run for miles making just one row.…

Tractor Talk: 1987 Steiger Panther 1000

The 1980s are not pleasantly remembered by most in agricultural manufacturing. Things took a downturn in the late ‘70s, got serious in the early ‘80s, and had agriculture reeling on…