Dick Bouma's Rare Half-Breed Gas Engine

M. Lytle & Son gas cylinder on a Gibbs, Russell & Co. steam bed

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Dick Bouma with his rare half-breed engine from the oil fields of Pennsylvania.

Photo by Rob Skinner

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Dick Bouma acquired this rare antique gas engine in 2001. Until last year, it resided at the Coolspring Power Museum in western Pennsylvania and now it's in Ontario, Calif. The engine is a half-breed, a M. Lytle & Son cylinder on a bed made by Gibbs, Russell & Co., Titusville, Pa.  

Early industry utilized steam for power, and steam engines were made in sizes from fractional horsepower to thousands of horsepower. As much as steam engines advanced industrialism and production, they were not without their drawbacks. Steam boilers required an experienced engineer, engines were maintenance intensive and start-up could take hours. Despite these drawbacks, steam power was used extensively, especially in oil production.

Technology marches on 

The latter half of the 19th century saw great strides in the improvement of the internal combustion engine. Problems in production, fuels and ignition were being resolved so that internal combustion was quickly becoming a viable alternative to steam.

Just as is the case today, economics drove business. As good as internal combustion engines were, it was not always economically feasible to replace a good or repairable steam engine with a brand new internal combustion engine. The market's answer to this economic constraint was the half-breed engine.

An owner of an engine could buy a kit that would convert his engine from steam to internal combustion. Included in the kit would be a new cylinder, piston and flywheel (or flywheel weights). Generally, the half-breed retrofits were of 2-cycle design, which did not require the elaborate mechanisms of a 4-cycle engine.

The old steam cylinder would be removed and the new cylinder installed. The steam bed would be reused, as would the crankshaft and a single flywheel. In the case of Dick's engine, rather than adding another flywheel, a "ring" was bolted onto the original flywheel to add mass and momentum.

The half-breed style engine was especially well suited for oil field use, as it could run off of the well-head gas that was a byproduct of oil production.

Engine details 

Dick's engine uses the bed from a Gibbs, Russell & Co. steam engine.Gibbs & Russell were only in business from 1865 until 1869, at which time the company evolved into Gibbs & Sterrett. Although there are several surviving Gibbs & Sterrett engines in existence, Dick's is the only known engine made by Gibbs & Russell. Gibbs & Russell was located in Titusville, Pa., where Edwin Drake first drilled for oil and kicked off the modern era of oil production.

The bull gear arrangement on the engine is somewhat of a mystery. Casting numbers indicated that it was manufactured neither by Gibbs, Russell & Co., nor M. Lytle & Son. The exact manufacturer remains unknown. The integrated bull gear, however, is uncommon on an engine of this type. Another noteworthy feature is the base the engine is mounted on. The decorative hand-riveted beams are from an 1888 Mundy stiff-leg steam crane.

This half-breed, like many other oil field engines, uses hot tube ignition. A hot tube is a short piece of pipe attached to the combustion chamber. It is heated to red hot by an external lamp. As the piston compresses the fuel/air charge in the cylinder, some of the mixture is forced into the hot tube, where it ignites. The lamp is fueled by the well-head gas, just like the engine.Hot tube ignition is simple, reliable and well-suited to oil field use.

The bottom side of the cylinder is closed off, just as is the case with a double-acting steam cylinder. In this application, however, the bottom half of the cylinder is used to induct fuel and air into the engine. First the fuel/air goes into the bottom half of the cylinder, then it is transferred to the top, just like a modern 2-stroke motorcycle or Maytag engine.

A characteristic of engines of this type is the crosshead. A rod connects the piston to the crosshead, which moves back-and-forth on a babbitt bearing surface. Another rod connects the crosshead to the crankshaft. This not only allows proper sealing of the bottom half of the cylinder, but also eliminates angular thrust on the piston skirt, greatly reducing stress and wear.

This engine originally powered a single oil well near Rock Run, Pa. The gear reduction, another rare feature of this engine, was attached to a rod line and to the pumping unit. The engine was one of five that were purchased and removed from this site in the early 1990s by Stiles Bradley and Craig Prucha.

Restoration 

Although the half-breed looks pristine today, there were a few repairs that needed to be completed to get it in top-notch shape. Dick fabricated a new intake valve and he also replaced a broken hot tube and chimney. Stiles poured new babbitt for the crosshead and for one of the main bearings. The cylinder was also bored, the piston metal sprayed and new rings made. 

Contact Dick Bouma at corvette59@verizon.net; Rob Skinner is editor of the Western Antique Power Associates monthly newsletter. Contact him at 1721 Brookdale Ave., La Habra, CA 90631; rskinner@rustyiron.comwww.rustyiron.com