'ANTIQUE MACHINERY'

Early Engine

Content Tools

From OFFICE OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS (915)752-1930

DAVIS-A controversy nearly 100 years old has surfaced at the University of California, Davis, with the refurbishing of another one-cylinder gasoline engine by the Antique Mechanics Club.

The question: Who built the first gasoline powered engine in the United States? The debate concerns the answer to that question. It was either Dan S. Regan of San Francisco or Syranus Stanish of Gridley, but it is not known, positively, who was first.

While it is not a raging controversy, members of the Antique Club would like to be able to solve it while they work to restore an early model of the 'Regan Gas Vapor Engine' to be displayed alongside the original 'Standish Gasoline Engine,' which was given to the University in 1939.

According to research by farm historian F. Hal Higgins, who located the Standish in 1937 and later gave it to the University, Standish family memories put the year of its building in Gridley in the 1880s. No patent was issued to Standish.

The patent plate on the Regan goes back to 1884 with the latest date being August 1889 on the engine recently added to the UCD collection.

'This maybe the only remaining example of the Regan engine,' according to Lorry Dunning, assistant coordinator of the Agriculture Machinery Collection and club sponsor, 'the junk dealers were very active in the late 1930s as Japan geared up for war. I don't know of any other models in existence,' he added.

The Regan was located under a tree on the Cadenasso Ranch in the Capay Valley near Davis where it had rested for 30 years after being removed from a salvage truck. It was obtained for the University by Club members from the grandson of Nicola Cadenasso. Nicola settled in the Capay Valley after immigrating from his native Italy in the 1860s.

EARLY ENGINE APPROACH-The cylinder of an 1890 Regan Gas Vapor Engine screwed onto the base rather than being bolted as others were. This is the latest piece of equipment donated to the Antique Mechanics Club at the University of California, Davis for inclusion in the Agricultural Machinery Collection after refurbishing.

AT RIGHT-BEFORE SPARK PLUGS-The Regan Gas Vapor Engine, which may have been the first gasoline powered engine built in the United States, worked without a spark plug. The 1890 model of the engine, now in the Agriculture Machinery Collection at the University of California, Davis, used the entire engine as one post of the electrical system and a metal tongue recessed in the head as the other. The rod, shown sticking above the cylinder, made contact with the tongue and completed the circuit. On the down stroke, the rod broke contact with the tongue and the resulting spark ignited the gasoline vapor. Courtesy of University of California, Davis, California 95616.

Grandson Nicholas Cadenasso related as much of the Regan history as he could remember. He said the engine came into the family about 1890 and was given to his father, Silvio, about 1981 and later loaned to another member of the family and was used as a power source for pumping water, sawing wood, and in 1912, hulling almonds.

Nicholas related to Club Secretary Dennis Packer that Silvio had been at his sister's ranch in the 1930s and saw the Regan engine on a salvage truck. 'When my father saw the engine, he claimed it belonged to him and the salvager was traded some other metal for the gas vapor engine,' Cadenasso said. 'I feel very fortunate being able to say that it turned out the way it did, or else it would have been lost for all time,' he added.

Higgins, who donated the Standish, said he arrived in Gridley in 1937 while researching the history of farming and farm machinery development in the United States. He was taken to the site of the Standish machine shop and foundry and discovered the engine.

'By mere chance,' Higgins writes, 'I had beaten the armament builders to it. One of these 'hunters for Mars' had stopped and climbed out on his truck with his heavy hammer swinging and made a bid of 'four bits' for the Standish engine just the previous week.

Higgins' research led him to meet with the grandson of Standish who said 'Grandfather gave me a picture and said it was the first gasoline engine built in the U. S.'

But even in the late 1930s and early 1940s Higgins was unable to tie down the year of development by writing to other family members and talking to older residents of Gridley although several residents remembered helping start the engine and said the year was about 1887.

There are many similarities between the two engines, even though the Regan is a later model. Both have large flywheels, both have ball governors to regulate the speed, both received electricity from dry cell batteries, and neither had spark plugs as they are known today.

The Regan uses the entire engine as a negative post and a tongue of metal in the head as the positive post. A metal shaft, cast as part of the piston, raises into the head and makes contact with the tongue and thus completes the circuit. As the piston drops on the power stroke, the contact is broken and the resulting spark ignites the vapor in the cylinder.

The Standish used two wires, one positive and one negative, which were pushed through a cork. Very similar to the present spark plug, these wires sparked when the flywheel reached a certain point in its revolution.

But there are dissimilar features, too. The Regan runs on gas vapor and the Standish on gasoline. A special carburetor, which can be separated from the engine by five to fifty feet of pipe, generated the gas vapors for the Regan.

The original Regan carburetor is missing, but was apparently a disk-like container about five inches deep and 12 inches in diameter with baffles shaped like a snail shell with a dome in the center. The air, being drawn toward the engine on the intake stroke bubbled through the gasoline or pearl oil (kerosene) and around the spiral track until saturated with vapors and then to the engine. The Regan would also run on illuminating or natural gas without the carburetor.

FIRST GASOLINE ENGINE?-Kathleen M. Roddani of Escalon and Lorry Dunning struggle to remove the head from an early model of what may be the first gasoline engine built in the United States. Kathy is a student at the University of California, Davis and a member of the campus' Antique Mechanics Club. Dunning is a staff member and coordinator of the Agriculture Machinery Collection.

Another difference, pointed out by Dunning, is that the cylinder of the Regan screwed onto the base while the Standish was bolted together. 'I was surprised when we began to fix the Regan that the cylinder screwed on. None of the literature indicates that possibility,' Dunning said.

Ease of starting was apparently another difference between the two machines. Higgins reported that Standish often needed the labor of half the town of Gridley to start his engine. Can-denasso recalls that his grandmother used to start the Regan and operate it for Sunday sightseers from Woodland who came to see the first gasoline engine in Yolo County.

The Antique Mechanics at UCD are currently getting the Regan in running order and will display it, and the already restored Standish, at Agri Expo West at Cal Expo in Sacramento February 22-24.

The ultimate goal of the Antique Mechanics Club, a diversified group of men and women students at UCD, local 4-H club members, and local residents, is to establish a museum to show the history of California agriculture mechanization.

'One cylinder engines, tractors, and horse drawn equipment built prior to World War II form the bulk of the collection,' according to Robert Ingram, fall quarter president. 'We have more than 200 pieces restored and these range from the Standish engine to horse drawn grain separators.'

Other rare items in the collection include the first diesel tractor, the first commercial butter churn, and the only H. W. Rice straw burning steam engine known to exist.

'Potential donors of equipment, pieces of equipment, or even square headed bolts can contact me at home,' Dunning said. His address is 1207 Pacific Ave., Davis and the telephone number is (916) 753-7217.