Gas engines that failed in action

Engine damaged when the governor failed

A shattered vertical engine, damaged when the governor failed. The open door in the back wall must have been the popular part of the building in the few seconds before the explosion. 

Photo courtesy of David W. Edgington

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We often hear engine enthusiasts describing the longevity of early engines and elderly people using the phrase 'built to last a lifetime' when they see a machine of their generation, still functioning today. Built to last a lifetime? This can certainly be said concerning the engines preserved in collections as many are already over seventy years old, but it must be remembered that many gas and oil engines did fail while in use, being damaged to such an extent that repairs were impossible.

It was common practice to take out an insurance policy against such failures, which included frost damage, seizure caused by lubrication deficiency, general accidents and damage to surrounding property caused by engine breakdown, this last item sounding terrifying but the photograph of the damaged vertical engine shows that this was indeed a valid clause.

An insurance company offering this type of policy gave the engine an inspection at least twice a year. At each visit of the inspector, the general working of the engine, the condition of the moving parts, the circulating arrangements, the temperature and flow of the circulating water were carefully noted and the various pipe connections examined.

On average, out of every 100 claims, 5 were due to fractured crankshafts, 5 due to connecting rod bolt failure, 10 to cracked water jackets and the rest were due to general accidents or bad maintenance.

It is only when one fully realizes the vast quantities of gas and oil engines that were produced around the turn of' the century does it become apparent that a larger number than first thought could well have come to an untimely end. William Robinson in his book, 'Gas & Petroleum Engines' (1902), wrote:

'Messrs. Crossley build a large variety of designs of the Otto cycle gas engine, to give from one-third of an effective horsepower up to 200 horsepower, and the large double-cylinder engine indicates 400 horsepower with Mond gas. About 3000 of these engines are sold every year. Until 1898, upwards of 33,000 gas engines were sold by this firm along, and with the Gas Motoren-Fabrik, Deutz, the German makers, there were 62,961 Otto engines sold from 1877 to the end of 1897, giving a total of 521,652 brake horsepower.'

We thank David W. Edgington, Editor of The Stationary Engine Advertiser, Lodge Wood Farm, Hawkeridge, Westbury, Wilts for permission to reprint his story as mentioned above, also for the use of pictures.