In the early days, U.S. gas engine development was dominated by companies in the upper Midwest and the East. That has always been my impression, but after pouring through Jack Alexander’s impressive new self-published book, The Regan Vapor Engine: The Beginning of California’s Gas Engine Industry, I’m forced to reassess that opinion. Midwest companies such as International Harvester Corporation and Fairbanks, Morse & Co. were certainly prime movers in the industry, but they came late to the game. As Alexander shows, the development and manufacture of gas engines was aggressively pursued by dozens of different companies on the West Coast starting in the 1880s, and most of that West Coast development started with one man, Daniel S. Regan.
Although he died young, aged 42, Regan’s influence on the budding California gas engine industry was broader than his years. Born in 1855, Regan began building gas engines as early as 1880, and by 1885 had received his first patent, for an electric igniter. Regan saw early on the limitations of slide-valve engines, and his igniter solved performance issues associated with slide-valve engines, such as slide-valve friction and fuel efficiency. Interestingly, Regan’s first igniter was not a “make-and-break” but rather a “break-and-make” as it operated with current flowing through a normally closed circuit, with the circuit broken to induce a spark.
An accomplished engineer, Regan was not, it would seem, as proficient on the business side of things. Several of his patents ended up with rival company Pacific Gas Engine Co., and when the dust finally settled Regan Vapor Engine Co. and Pacific Gas Engine Co. were absorbed into Union Gas Engine Co. Although Regan’s designs were eventually abandoned, they set the stage for Union and a host of other engine companies in and around San Francisco, California.
According to Alexander, a host of companies operating in the area were inspired by Regan’s advances in gas engine technology and got their foothold thanks to his pioneering work. Those include well-known names such as Daniel Best and Golden Gate, and lesser-known companies such as Bonds and the Electric Vapor Engine Co. In all, Alexander provides profiles and period accounts of more than 60 West Coast, mostly San Francisco-based companies.
In the last years of his career Regan focused on different uses for gas engines, including a gas-powered personal rail car (it was far too heavy to be practical), and received patents for a planetary transmission for gas engines (the first of its kind) and a “power transmitter” for use in hoists.
A fascinating accounting of the early days of California’s gas engine industry, The Regan Vapor Engine is an important record of the activities of the region. The Regan Vapor Engine: The Beginning of California’s Gas Engine Industry, by Jack Alexander. Paperback, 493 pages, b/w illustrations. $19.95. To purchase a copy, go to LuLu and enter the search term “The Regan Vapor Engine.”