Locally-made farm machinery makes an unlikely comeback

Sorting eggs for packaging is a tiresome chore. Or at least it was until a Swiss immigrant who lived in Titusville thought of a better way to do it way back in the 1930s.

Before the Egomatic, as his invention was called, poultry farms employed dozens of people to hold eggs up to a light, inspect them for imperfections such as cracks and blood spots and then weigh them with egg scales and sort the good ones into various sizes. Otto Niederer’s simple yet ingenious machine made it possible for one person to sort 3,600 eggs an hour, an unheard of pace that allowed one person to do the work of 10.

Niederer’s company transformed agriculture in its own small way, allowing mechanization of the egg industry in New Jersey and around the world. His company, Otto Niederer and Sons, thrived from the late 1930s to 1986, when it was driven out of business by makers of bigger, computerized machines.

Yet, the humble Egomatic itself is making an unlikely comeback, much like Niederer himself did during the Great Depression.

The story of the Egomatic began in 1915, according to Otto’s grandson Randy Niederer. In that year, a 20-year-old Otto moved to the United States from the Appenzell dairy country of Switzerland. Two of his brothers were already in America, and the older one had established a dairy farm in North Jersey. Niederer, an embroiderer by trade, got a job in a textile factory in New York City. However, he had greater ambitions. Five years later, he bought a farm in Titusville and began a dairy farm of his own, on the advice of his brother.

The farm got off to a disastrous start. In the first year, all of his cows were dead from a tuberculosis outbreak, and his farm held only a vegetable patch with which to support his growing family. Rather than admit defeat and move on, however, Niederer retreated to his barn, where he worked on two revolutionary machines: one for candling, the other for sorting. He sold the rights for the sorting machine to a mining company. Later, he combined the two devices into what became the Egomatic, and showed it in action at various agricultural fairs, where it was a hit.

Together with his two sons sons, Herbert and Otto Jr., Niederer perfected his machine. The sons formed a company, Otto Niederer and Sons, to manufacture their device. By 1940, Niederer had lost the dairy farm to bankruptcy, but had set up a factory in Pennington to make his new machine, which was in high demand among egg farmers.

Watching an Egomatic in action is almost mesmerizing. Eggs placed in a chute roll down onto a conveyor belt and are moved onto a series of scales. Heavier eggs tip the first scale and roll into the “extra large” category. Lighter eggs might tip the “medium” scale. Only the smallest eggs make it to the end.

Anyone who wants to see an Egomatic in action can go to the Holcome-Jimison Farmstead Museum, in Lambertville, where board of trustees member Hank Snyder, of Flemington, was happy to show a reporter how it worked. Snyder said he had an Egomatic on his own egg farm, and had two women running it. He said he would never have been able to run his operation without the Egomatic.

But why call it the Egomatic and not, say, the Eggomatic? Randy Niederer believes it was a matter of education.

“My grandfather never knew any English prior to coming to the country,” he explained. “The boys, including my father, went to their graves never having graduated from 8th grade, because of the depression and hard times on the farm. Otto graduated 8th grade and went on to his first year of high school. They were what you might call natural mechanical engineers, but they had no formal training. The least of their concerns was the spelling of ‘Egomatic.’”

The single “G” would cause confusion for years. Randy said while he was at Rider University, one of his professors asked him why his egg machine was called the “Ego matic.”

Karl, another grandson, said he was never sure why the machine had such an unusual spelling, but speculated it may have been related to the existence of an egg vending machine called the Egg-o-Mat.

“They weren’t psychologists, that’s for sure,” Karl quipped.

However it was spelled, the machine was a hit. The Niederers began to ship the tabletop-sized devices all over the state.

That was when disaster struck again. In 1941, the United States entered WWII. Metal rationing meant that the steel used to make the Egomatic was reserved for war industry. No factory could survive making anything other than weapons or equipment for the military.

However, Niederer’s ingenuity was up to the challenge of the war effort. He created a new machine, called the Rivomatic that did for rivets what the Egomatic had done for eggs. In WWII, riveters rushing through their jobs on airplane assembly lines would leave factory floors littered with dropped rivets of different sizes. There was no time to waste picking up the dropped metal fasteners. Instead, factories would sweep the floors at the end of each shift and sort through the different-sized rivets to be reused. By 1943, Rivomatic was automating the task. Randy said aircraft factories would send barrels full of floor-swept rivets to Pennington, where they would be sorted by machine and then shipped back.

Karl said the war was a blessing in disguise for the company. By 1945, Niederer and Sons had a facility equipped with the latest machinery.

“As a result of government contracts, they were able to tool up with equipment which they were later able to use in expanding their business,” he said.

Randy said the Rivomatic machines were dismantled after the war and kept for a time in case they were needed again, but that over the years they were thrown away.

The Egomatic’s heyday came after the war, when the company resumed production of its agricultural machines. Randy said about 70 people worked at the factory at any given time. The original machine was refined, but retained its basic design. They also made an egg-cleaning machine that used a belt sander, but that innovation never caught on. The Egomatic, on the other hand, spread far and wide. The grandsons documenting the company’s history aren’t sure exactly how many were produced, but they were installed all over the world.

Randy blamed mismanagement for the company’s downfall in the ’80s. In seven short years, he said, Otto Niederer & Sons went from flourishing to bankrupt. Karl said the company’s last effort at staying relevant was a failed effort to build a computerized version of the Egomatic.

But the Egomatic didn’t die along with the company. The rights to build the machine were sold to another manufacturer, Food Processing Systems, and eventually made their way to Kuhl Inc., of Flemington. Kuhl now makes a new version of the Egomatic that is based closely on the old design. And changes in farming have meant that the simple, one-person Egomatic is once again in demand.

“There’s increased demand for equipment of that size and capacity,” Kuhl said.

Randy Niederer also noticed that small farms could make good use of Egomatic machines.

“With the resurgence of organic farms, which are smaller operations, and many of these farms actually keeping range-fed chickens and organic eggs, there is a market for these small egg graders,” he said.

Even with the eventual failure of the manufacturing business, Otto Niederer’s tale is still a success story. A Swiss immigrant in search of a better life came to America and found not only the opportunity he was looking for, but made life better for countless others in the process.

“America of the 20th century was a place of essentially unlimited possibilities,” Karl said. “If you wanted to work and use your inventive talents, the sky was the limit, and in many ways, he was typical of an early 20th-century immigrant coming to the USA.”

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Diccon Hyatt is business editor of U.S. 1. He has worked for Community News since 2006 and was previously community editor of the Ewing Observer, the Hopewell Express, the Lawrence Gazette, and the Trenton Downtowner. From 2003 to 2006, he was a general assignment reporter for the Middletown Transcript in Middletown, Delaware. In 2002, he graduated from the University of Delaware, where he was features editor of the student newspaper, The Review. He has won numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association and the Association of Free Community Newspapers for features, news, and opinion writing. He is married and lives in Marlton, NJ.