Romancing the Hesselmans

The Waukesha Motor Company (WMCo) was a pioneer in the use of internal combustion engines in many fields of endeavor. I recently stumbled into another field of endeavor that the company pioneered and is it has to do with the movie industry!


Back in 1936 the British Government was planning a network of roads in South Africa. The Ingersoll-Rand Co. (I-R), the primary user of the Waukesha Hesselman engines for their portable industrial air compressors, was going to be one of the major suppliers to the contractors.


Hesselman engines, often referred to as “Multi-fuel Engines” or “Oil Engines”, were ideal for the project because they could run on any grade of fuel having both an injection pump and ignition system. (for more on the Hesselman engines see article on our website: Waukesha-Hesselman Oil Engines) I-R portable compressors were sold around the world and at the time the quality of fuel could never be guaranteed. Even so, I-R apparently had to convince the British government to use Hesselmans instead of diesels. So, I-R asked the WMCo to film a movie to show the care, expertise and precision in which Waukesha manufactured the Hesselman engines.


And so it was that, in July 1936, the WMCo set about to film the movie. Local photographer Warren O’Brien, who had taken thousands of photographs for the company, was selected to film the movie. Using two models, O’Brien filmed movie scenes in various departments in the company, including the machine shop, inspection, the assembly line, test room and laboratory, all showing the expertise and precision in which the Hesselman’s were being manufactured at Waukesha. Each scene was filmed twice so that the company would have its own reel of the movie.


The plot of the movie was obvious --- to convince the British that the Hesselman engine would be a better choice than a diesel for this project.  According to the records, the tough, no-nonsense, company inspector, Joe P. Morrison was the hero of the movie --- I guess because the British were convinced the Hesselmans were up to the task.


It was decided to show the movie to the WMCo employees and so many signed up to see it that the only place in town with a large enough seating capacity was the high school auditorium. Even then, it took four showings to accommodate them all. There were two shows on Thursday evening on 12-10-1936 and two on Friday evening the next day.


Movie Opening


The movie industry found out about the movie and it was shown at a movie convention back east. It received favorable comments from the engineers and directors of the movie industry. But why would a sales promotion movie be of interest to them? Well, it was the first movie filmed in color inside an industrial plant!


Unfortunately, the Waukesha Engine Historical Society does not know what happened to Motor Company’s reel of the movie?


In February 2015, several years after writing this story, I received an E-Mail from John Schoenknecht, noted historian of Waukesha history, with some photos attached of a movie on a DVD that he came in possession of. A friend of John’s had digitized a bunch of old movies stored at the local museum and one of them was about the WMCo. John had recently written a series of articles (see articles on our website: The Motor Works) about the company in the local newspaper and so his friend gave John a DVD of the movie. The friend said that there was a note attached to the old movie reel mentioning a second reel! John showed the movie to members of a local 1834 Club. The movie was in color and is the second reel of the movie--- Romancing the Hesselmans!


(The 1834 Club is a small group of local historians who collect all sorts of artifacts related to Waukesha’s colorful history, especial its mineral springs health resort era and its brewery, soda water and dairy era.  The city was founded in 1834, and thus the club’s name.)   


Rocky Schaefer, Historian
Rewritten: 2015,

Epilog: 2-23-2015


Copyright © 2015 Waukesha Engine Historical Society, Inc. All rights reserved

WEHS Articles