College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Liggett Family Legacy – Part I: John T. Liggett

A 1999 article in Visions magazine, produced by the Iowa State University Alumni Association,
informed many aspects of the reporting in this four-part series

John Thomas Liggett’s entry in the 1917 edition of The Bomb yearbook.

When John Thomas Liggett completed his degree in mechanical engineering at Iowa State in 1917, he had no idea he was starting what would become a family tradition. Since then, three other three other generations of Liggetts have passed through the halls of Iowa State University.

John T. Liggett arrived on the Iowa State College (as it was then called) campus in 1913, attended classes in Engineering Hall (later Marston Hall) and was influenced by Anson Marston, who would become Iowa State’s first dean of engineering. It didn’t come easy for the aspiring engineer who actually failed calculus his sophomore year, forcing him to take summer classes and causing him to lose out on a love interest back home in Des Moines who decided to pursue things with “another fellow,” according to his memoirs.

John T. Liggett completed his mechanical engineering (ME) degree in 1917, just a month after military conscription began for the United States’ involvement in World War I. Former president Howard Taft was Iowa State’s commencement speaker that year and addressed the need for the United States to do their part in the war. “We may have to give up a million men to free the world of Prussian military domination,” Taft said, as reported by The Des Moines Register.

During this era, the mechanical engineering department at Iowa State did its part to contribute to the war effort. Beginning in April 1918, a training program was launched to train military auto mechanics, blacksmiths and machinists. Approximately 500 soldiers arrived on campus for training, which was separate from the college’s academic program but used many of the ME department’s facilities. Part of the training was led by ME professor Warren Meeker. ME alum Edgar Stanton served as acting president of the college at the time, as Raymond A. Pearson had stepped away from his responsibilities as college president to serve on the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the war effort.

An army training course taught by Professor Meeker in 1918. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives

John T. Liggett served in the Army after graduation, and upon his discharge in 1919, he married Ethel Anderson. The following year the couple had their first son, John R. (Jack) Liggett, who would go on to become the second generation of Liggetts to study ME at Iowa State. In 1926, John T. Liggett patented and built a new sliding valve system for Ford Model T cars. He described the process in his memoirs.

In 1922 I conceived the idea of a reciprocating valve mechanism for the internal combustion engine. This consisted of a sleeve member and a piston member inside operating inside an exterior cylindrical bore. This would replace the poppet valve, which were used in conventional engines.

A 1910 Ford Model T. Photo courtesy of Shipler Commercial Photographers/Utah Department of Heritage & Arts

I presented drawings of the idea and a working wood model to several engine manufacturers in Iowa. I failed to interest any of them.

Then we decided that a working installation on a car would improve the chances of the acceptance of the design. So with Dad’s financial backing an experimental cylinder head was made for a Ford Model T engine.

I made the drawings. The pattern maker at Woods assisted and advised in the making of the patterns. I had the castings made in another foundry. A job machine shop in Des Moines did the machining of the castings. I did the final fitting and assembly in my home garage.

During my summer vacation of 1924 I demonstrated the car to manufacturers in Chicago, Lansing, Detroit, Toledo, and South Bend. The only one who expressed any interest was the Chicago Motor Coach. They considered for two weeks. Then said they had just invested 5 hundred thousand in Knight engine tooling and couldn’t drop that. So I just dropped the project. We let the patent application develop. It was issued in August of 1926.

According to his grandson John M. Liggett, “He could drive it 60 miles per hour when most Model T’s could only go 45 miles per hour. He was unsuccessful selling the idea to any manufacturer, so when he scrapped the car, he donated the engine to the ISU mechanical engineering department to use in their test lab, sometime in the 1930s as I recall.”

John T. Liggett started his career working as an engineer for a small farm equipment manufacturer. He later worked for John Deere Engines in Waterloo and lastly worked for Allis Chalmers in Springfield, Illinois. He retired from there as assistant chief engineer.

He passed away in 1988 at the age of 94.

READ: Part II John R. (Jack) Liggett
READ: Part III John M. Liggett
READ: Part IV Ian Liggett