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Don Fess (1915–1999)

Don Fess of Magnolia (Columbia County) built and patented a prototype engine that saved energy by using rotating pistons rather than the standard up-and-down pistons.

Don Fess was born in Allendale, Illinois, on February 12, 1915. His parents, Ora and Eunice Fess, moved with their four sons to Haynesville, Louisiana, in about 1925. Fess finished high school there at age sixteen (at that time, Louisiana schools had only eleven grades) and began to look for a job.

He married Martha Emma Wainwright on June 1, 1934, and built a house across the street from his parents using salvaged lumber. He delivered ice seven days a week for a wage of $1.50 per day. He and his wife had six children.

After moving to Arkansas to take a job with the Ohio Oil Company in Magnolia in 1939, he built another home using salvaged lumber. The job consisted of shift work at an oil-pumping station monitoring the equipment. The job left him time to pursue other interests.

Being mechanically inclined and having worked on cars as a teenager, he began to explore ways to improve automobile engines. He reasoned that the up-and-down motion of the pistons resulted in a lot of lost motion, so he envisioned a cylinder that rotated instead. He built a one-cylinder prototype in the machine shop and confirmed that it would run. He then had a friend make mechanical drawings of the concept and applied for a patent. In February 1941, he was awarded U.S. patent No. 2231440 A for a rotary engine.

Since World War II was looming, his idea was sidelined as manufacturers geared up for the war effort. Also, material was not available to withstand the heat and pressure on the seal around the rotation point. After seventeen years, the patent was allowed to expire.

During the 1930s, others had pursued the concept in Germany using a modified cylinder shape. The Wankel Engine, first introduced in about 1967, powered Mazda automobiles, although problems with rotor sealing continued to plague the concept of rotating pistons.

During World War II, Fess, a self-taught electrician, did part-time electrical jobs for extra money for his growing family. After the war, he left the Ohio Oil Company and formed his own contracting company. He lived the rest of his life in Magnolia. As an electrical contractor, he helped build most of the major buildings in Magnolia and surrounding communities. He died on March 3, 1999, and is buried in Magnolia.

For additional information:
“Deaths: Magnolia.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 5, 1999, p. 7B.

“Obituary: Don Fess.” Banner News, March 5, 1999, p. 2.

“Rotary Motor Patent, 1941.” https://www.google.com/patents/US2231440 (accessed March 30, 2017).

Michael Don Fess
Magnolia, Arkansas

Last Updated 3/30/2017

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