Hugo Bilgram

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Hugo Bilgram: Radical Economist of Philadelphia

A biographical sketch by Robert P. Helms

Born at Memmingen (Bavaria) Germany on 13 January 1847, Hugo Bilgram was the son of G. David and Rosina Wiedenmann Bilgram. He graduated from the polytechnic School at Augsburg in 1865, then worked in Strasbourg and Saxony. He arrived in the United States in 1869, settling permanently at Philadelphia. There he worked as a machinist, opening his own gear factory around 1879 and becoming quite successful. A highly respected machine designer, he published a book on special gears and held at least three patents. The 5-storey factory building that he once had newly built still stands on Spring Garden Street, bearing the last traces of his painted sign on its bricks. In many scientific journals, including American Machinist and Journal of the Franklin Institute, as well as radical serials of his time, Bilgram held forth on law, botany, astrophysics, and social movements. Gaining a reputation for his pamphlet The Iron Law of Wages, this staunch opponent of organized labor was a regular lecturer and familiar face at meetings of the several social reform movements at Philadelphia, contributing hundreds of articles to Liberty (Boston), Twentieth Century (New York), The Conservator (Philadelphia), and Justice (Philadelphia). He strongly advocated the copyright of inventions, and held that reduction of interest and elimination of money monopoly would make the abolition of rent (as with single tax) unnecessary. He stopped short of anarchism only in that he thought government necessary for general security.

Bilgram retained a blind loyalty to employers and his own theories when discussing actual labor disputes. In 1892 he defended the Carnegie Company's importation of strikebreakers and armed "watchmen" to the Homestead Works. In 1899 he wrote that "equity ceases when strikers in any way interfere with other men who are engaged to take their places, and their acts become clearly criminal when they resort to violence." While his analyses always prompted heated debate, Bilgramís sincerity and intelligence were never questioned.

"Most of the world's evil comes not from money," he stated in 1929, "but from the monopoly of it. If there was not a dearth of money, men could employ other men and abolish poverty. The monopoly of money is caused by permission given to banks to earn interest they are not entitled to."

Bilgrim helped establish the Technischer Verein (technical society) in the city and was an amateur botanist of distinction, and authored professional articles on slime-molds. He died on 27 August, 1932 at his home in suburban Moylan PA, survived by his wife Mary, son Oscar, and daughter Bertha. He was buried in the family plot at Mount Peace Cemetery (North Philadelphia) section R, lot 489, grave #2. The grave is unmarked.

Selected Bibliography

  • Bilgram, Hugo Slide Valve Gears (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, & Haffelfinger, 1878)
  • _____, The Iron Law of Wages (pamphlet reprinted from Age of Steel, St. Louis, 1887)
  • _____, Involuntary Idleness(Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1889) [1]
  • _____, "The Other Side" Twentieth Century (New York) Aug. 11, 1892
  • _____, A Study of the Money Question (New York: Humboldt, 1894)
  • _____, "Labor Unions" The Conservator (Philadelphia) Dec. 1899
  • _____, and Levy, Louis Edward The Cause of Business Depressions, As Disclosed by an Analysis of the Basic Principles of Economics (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1914)
  • _____, The Remedy for Overproduction and Unemployment (New York: Vanguard, 1928)
  • Oliver Blair Funeral Home, Philadelphia: "Record for Hugo Bilgram," August 27, 1932 (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)