Oscar Ulysses Zerk

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Oscar Ulysses Zerk (Oskar Zerkowitz)

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Death: December 08, 1968 (90)
Kenosha, Kenosha County, WI, USA
Immediate Family:

Son of Bernhard Lazar Zerkowitz and Flora Zerkowitz (Schlesinger)
Husband of Adele Zerk (Zirk) and Dorothy Margaret Zerk
Ex-husband of Maria F. Zerk (Bohrn) and Patricia Shepard
Father of Tosca Nena Wyss (Zerk) and (unnamed infant son) Zerk
Brother of Dr. Max (Maximilian) Zerk; Hugo Zerkowitz; Rudolf Zerkowitz; Marion (Marjon) Günsberger; Adolf M. (Fufi) Zerkowitz and 2 others

Occupation: Successful inventor (Made millions from his inventions)
Managed by: Robert Hanscom
Last Updated:

About Oscar Ulysses Zerk

Oskar Zerkowitz emigrated to the United States and changed his name to "Oscar Ulysses Zerk". He was also known as "Oscar V. Zerk". He became a world-famous inventor and one of his most prominent creations was a grease fitting known as "the zerk". This was a lubrication system which became the basis for those used on nearly every car, truck, plane, and other mechanized vehicle. At the time of his death in 1968, it was estimated that 20 billion of these fittings had been manufactured.

During Oscar's long life, he patented 300 other inventions including leg-slimming hosiery, quick-freezing ice cube trays, spatterproof nail brushes, fail-safe brakes for trolley cars, vibration-free camera tripods, oil well recovery systems, and refrigerators for cars. He is also credited with designing and patenting stamped metal wheels and wheel covers for automobiles (which, in the 1920s, replaced wire wheels). Additionally, he devised a type of non-skid brakes for cars.

An intelligent, precocious child, Oscar attended a private school in Germany. While still in his teens, he devised an electrically operated textile machine controlled by a then-unheard of punch card system, that could weave complex brocades and do the work of 12 people. Returning to Austria to continue his schooling, he applied to the engineering and textile college at Bruenn. When he was turned down, and subsequent pleas to the ministry of education were rebuffed, he boldly appealed directly to the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef. Surprisingly, he was granted a private audience at Schoenbrunn Palace where the emperor was so impressed with Oscar's grasp of technology, he immediately decreed that the youth be admitted to the college.

After graduating, Oscar went abroad in 1901. He spent four years in Bradford, England, a British textile center, where he developed and improved his weaving machine. He then returned to Austria for several years, where he turned his attention to the automobile. He designed the first six-cylinder motor car and later, a forerunner of the automatic transmission. Intent on studying an American-made car, the White Steamer, he came to the United States in 1907. He arrived at Ellis Island on 9 February 1907 on the ship "America" out of Cuxhaven. He is listed as "Oskar Zerkowitz", born in Vienna, "motor car engineer", single, and 5'8" in height. On a later voyage, while mid-ocean as a passenger on the "Lusitania", he got the idea for a new, and vastly improved, system of auto lubrication. [Ellis Island records show that "Oscar Zerk" arrived on the "Lusitania" on 31 October 1913.]

Following his arrival in the U.S.A., Oscar formed his own company in Cleveland, Ohio, to manufacture the first Zerk grease fittings. Although he employed as many as 500 workers and had contracts with virtually every automaker, he lost control of his company in 1913 and sold out. He was visiting Austria in 1914 when World War I broke out. He was called up for military service by his native land and served four years as an army captain, winning several decorations.

When the war ended, he married an Austrian woman and returned to America. She and their young daughter joined him soon after:

Ship "Rotterdam", arriving in New York City, 15 September 1920: ZERKOVITZ, Osker, age 42, auto engineer, speaks German, Czecho Slovakian, born in Vienna, Austria, nearest relative in Europe: wife, Mrs. Maria Zerkovitz, Brahnaplatz, Vienna IV, Austria; destination: Cleveland, Ohio

Ship "America", arriving in New York City, 24 December 1921: ZERKOVITZ, Maria, age 20, housewife, b. Austria, from Wien, nearest relatives in Europe: parents, Andreas Bohrn and wife, Parkstrasse I, Wien III, Austria; destination: husband, Oscar ZERK, 7816 S. E. Ave., Cleveland, Ohio daughter, Toska, age 1 1/2

Undaunted by his earlier business problems, Oscar Zerk moved to Chicago and designed an even better lubrication system. Eventually, he sold the rights to this invention to a major automative parts maker and retained a relationship as a consulting engineer. Later, when he discovered serious management irregularities in that company, he led a much-publicized stockholders' revolt against the board of directors. When he won, "Time" magazine noted -- with admiration -- "Zerk is a man to be watched."

In 1938, tired of working in downtown Chicago, Oscar sought a more rural setting, a place where he could live comfortably, indulging in his longtime passion for flowers and gardening. Also, during his years of traveling, he had collected artworks in Europe, mineral and natural science specimens thorughout America, and curios from around the world. He wanted a suitable home to house those treasures. Eventually, in 1939, Oscar chose a three-story mansion in Kenosha, Wisconsin -- "Dunmovin" -- which had been built years earlier by Kenosha industrialist, Henry Cooper. There, at his Cooper Road estate, Oscar would live for the rest of his life.

Oscar virtually gutted the house and then remodeled it to his exacting specifications. Special care was given to exquisite decorating touches, such as quilted-satin wall coverings. Hidden fixtures, including emerald-hued spotlights, illuminated his eclectic collection which ranged from Hans Holbein etchings to dinosaur eggs and an elephant foot cuspidor. The garde, also, received his special attention. Nighttime lighting effects gave the plants and flowers a dramatic backdrop. During World War II, he hosted formal garden parties, not only for a fascinated Kenosha society, but also for military personnel stationed at nearby bases. He also went to Washington during the war years in response to a request by the United States government to redesign his earlier gyroscopic movie tripod for use in aerial combat motion picture photography.

Oscar Zerk was brilliant and eccentric. He loved art and music, science and natural history. He was a social and sociable man, but could be impatient and irascible. Although he was known worldwide for his inventions, particularly in the automotive industry, he made important cultural contributions to the Kenosha community as an early supporter of the Kenosha Symphony Association. He was known to friends as a muscian of near concert-level ability, playing a piano which had been personally selected for him in 1912 by the great pianist Paderewski. He loved classical music, but also, the glitzy Hollywood musical films. No recluse, he was often seen during his bachelor days attending movies in local theaters.

His interest in natural history took him to the field and once accompanied Dr. Barnum Brown (of the American Museum of Natural History) on an archaeological dig in Wyoming. While there, they uncovered the fossil record of an Iguanadon.

Oscar also maintained correspondence with both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A perfectionist by nature, he insisted on exactness in everything, from his inventions to the punctuality of dinner guests invited to his estate. One report has it that guests who showed up 15 minutes late were met at the door by Oscar in a dressing gown. He informed them of their tardiness, told them he was about to retire, closed the door, and returned upstairs.

One night, in February 1954, Oscar had retired to his bedroom when three armed men broke into his home. The gangsters, part of the organized crime syndicate in Chicago, tied the 75-year old inventor to a chair, struck him in the nose, and threatened his life. Then they stole some $150,000 worth of artwork and antiques. This brazen robbery attracted national attention. But the case was quickly solved by the FBI. The men were arrested and imprisoned and most of the loot -- which Oscar later donated to the University of Wisconsin -- was recovered.

In a 1963 interview, marking his 85th birthday, he was quoted as saying, "Inventors have a high responsibility to serve mankind by using their gifts." He kept right on inventing until shortly before his death at the age of 90.

Oscar's four marriages were all to women much younger than himself. He married his first wife in 1919, when he was 41 and she only 18. That marriage ended in divorce in 1934. He married his second wife about 1944, when he was 65 and she only 23. After her death in childbirth in 1945, he married a third time. His new wife was 19 while he was close to 70. That marriage was annulled in a "messy case" that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

Finally, he was married -- this time happily -- to his fourth wife, Dorothy, 33 years his junior.

Oscar may have become estranged from his brother, Adolf, in their later years: When Oscar died in 1968, his obituary names his brother Max, but makes no mention of Adolf (who was still alive and residing in Barcelona).


From the Obituaries section of the Wisconsin State Journal, July 16, 1945:

Kenosha Millionaire's Wife, Son Die

KENOSHA —(U.R)— The unusual marriage of Oscar U. Zerk, 66-year-old millionaire Kenosha inventor, and the former Adele Zirk, 24, was ended Sunday when Mrs. Zerk died a few hours after the birth of a son. The infant died too.

The couple was married in April, 1944, 11 days after Miss Zirk an employe of an aircraft plant in Caldwell, N. J., came across the millionaire's name in company files and noticed its similarity to her own. She wrote to find out if they might be distant relatives.

Zerk came to see her and soon afterward proposed. The wedding reception on Zerk's beautiful estate was a highlight in Kenosha's social history.


New York Times -- December 1968 (obituary) for Oscar Zerk

KENOSHA, Wis., Dec. 9 -- Oscar Ulysses ZERK, a prolific inventor whose principal achievement was the automobile lubrication gun, died here yesterday at the age of 90.

Mr. Zerk, a native of Vienna, came to this country in 1907, and shortly after formed a company in Cleveland where he developed lubrication methods and devices that became the basis for those used in the automobile industry today.

He subsequently patented a lubrication gun that could grease an autombile chassis in a fraction of the time and at half the cost than that being used by automobile manufacturers. He later sold his lubrication patents to the Stewart-Warner Corporation.

Mr. Zerk patented about 300 inventions. He believed his most important invention was a weaving machine that produced elaborate brocade work quickly and without error. Before coming to the United States, he helped develop the first six-cylinder internal combustion engine produced in England, and a braking system for street cars, also developed in England.

At the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted in the Imperial Austrian Cavalry and rose to the rank of captain. He was decorated twice by the Austrian government -- for bravery and for inventing a decontamination system for men coming out of the trenches. He returned to the United States soon after the war and became a citizen.

His estate here, Dunmovin, was a showplace and famous in the Midwest for its collection of paintings, gems, and art objects. He was a member of the Society of Military Engineers, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Museum of Natural History.

He leaves his fourth wife, the former Dorothy Rynders of Milwaukee, and a daughter of an earlier marriage, Miss Tosca Zerk of Chicago.

Manitowoc (Wisconsin) Herald-Times -- 9 December 1968 (obituary) "INVENTOR IS DEAD" Kenosha, Wis. (AP) -- Oscar U. Zerk, an internationally known inventor whose creations include the Zerk grease gun, died Sunday at his home of a heart ailment. He was 90.

Zerk, who achieved fame for his development of lubricants and lubrication equipment, had an estimated 300 U.S. and foreign patents.

The graduate of the University of Bruenn in Austria often said he felt his greatest invention to have been an electronic device to speed textile design.

He went to Bradford, England in 1901 to perfect the device, then returned to Austria as a pioneer in the development of the automatic automotive transmission.

In 1907, he beame a consulting engineer in the former Roayl Motor Co., in Cleveland, and later founded Zerk Manufacturing Co. whose greasing devices gained widespread fame through the car, airplane, and military fields.

Survivors include his fourth wife, Dorothy; a brother, Maximilian, of Los Angeles; and a daughter, Tosca, of Chicago.

Services are Wednesday in Kenosha.

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Oscar Ulysses Zerk's Timeline

May 16, 1878
Vienna, Austria
February 8, 1920
Vienna, Austria
July 8, 1945
Kenosha, Kenosha County, WI, USA
December 8, 1968
Age 90
Kenosha, Kenosha County, WI, USA