Odd Gas Engine Designs Highlighted in New Book

Ron Cairns' book, Power Pioneers: The Art of the Engine — Pre 1956, examines oddball and ingenious gas engine designs.

Power Pioneers

Power Pioneers looks at engine innovations through patent applications.

Cover courtesy Ron Cairns

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“Once upon a time, a very wise man taught me that any engine will run, if it has fuel, air and a source of ignition, it will run. How well it runs is what keeps alchemy fun. All engines are magic and I am not a magician. I am but a common man with common ideas, a layman with a passion for heat engines.” So writes author Ron Cairns in the foreword to his new book, Power Pioneers: The Art of the Engine – Pre 1956.

We usually reserve Patent Page as a place to examine interesting patents issued to inventors set on improving existing gas engine designs or creating new ones from whole cloth. Over the years, we’ve looked at a number of engine patents, ranging from Rasmus Hvid’s design for the Hvid diesel engine as used by Hercules to Charles Stickney’s patent for exhaust valve, igniter and governor actuation and the patent for the ported exhaust system used in Gade engines, to name a few.

The vast majority of engines collected by Gas Engine Magazine readers and shared in these pages come from the pre-1930 era. At first blush that would seem to put Cairns’ examination – engines up to 1956 – outside of our general scope. That would seem be correct were it not for the diversity of oddball and ingenious engine designs documented by Cairns in his new book.

Power Pioneers is divided into five chapters examining inventions relating to five corresponding engine configurations; Axial, Inline, Opposed, Radial and Rotary. Inline engines (the Otto-Langen is a single-cylinder inline) are the most commonly collected and restored in our hobby, but most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the other four types discussed. Personally, I know very little about axial engines, so I was intrigued to see what I would learn in Cairns’ book.

Engine examinations

Each chapter begins with a general description of the engine type. The individual engines – there are 125 of them – are presented simply as patent drawings, with major components called out in an accompanying chart. There are no inventor statements of intent or any suggestions of what problems or issues the inventor’s design purported to answer. The reader is, effectively, left up to his or her own designs to understand the peculiarities of a given design. The engines shown are unquestionably fascinating, but it strikes me that some guidance would be helpful.

Interestingly enough, however, I found the omission of information to be something of a twin-edged sword: I wanted to know more, so I had to find it myself via online patent searches – which ended up being fascinating. Those searches led me to look at some of the opposed engines shown here, including Thomas and Frank Antisell’s 1900 patent (No. 661,300) for a single-cylinder opposed twin with a common combustion chamber, a design similar in concept to the famous Kansas City Haypress Lightning engine but with a twist; on the power stroke, one piston compressed air in a sealed chamber in the cylinder, with said compressed air piped to a tank. According to the patent, the compressed air could then be piped to the backside of said piston to “push” the piston and help power the engine. The inventors saw this as a means of providing extra power under high demand, such as in an automobile climbing a hill.

Another patent that drew my attention was Carlos Dulché’s 1929 patent (No. 1,719,537) for a compact, 4-cylinder horizontally-opposed engine. Notably, Dulché’s design featured opposed pistons in a common cylinder rigidly fixed to each other. Unlike the Antisell design, the pistons did not create a common combustion chamber; compression and ignition occurred in separate combustions chambers at either end of the cylinder, with the pistons crowns facing outward. The pistons were linked to a fulcrum-mounted lever, with one end of the lever fixed on the plate pairing the pistons together. As the pistons moved back and forth under combustion, their reciprocating motion was transferred via the lever to a connecting rod pushing on a crankshaft to generate rotational force. The cylinders were designed to be air- or water-cooled, and the layout theoretically allowed for any combination of cylinders.

Also interesting was Charles Toce and Alexander Clark’s 1931 patent (No. 1,810,688) for a 2-stroke opposed twin using a three-sided camshaft in place of the normal crankshaft, resulting, the inventors claimed, in each piston producing three power strokes for each shaft revolution. Like Dulché, Toce and Clark fixed the opposed pistons rigidly together in line. The bar fixing the two pistons carried a pair of rollers, one at each end. As ignition drove one piston down, the roller for that piston would push against a three-sided camshaft (effectively the crankshaft), turning the shaft. As a 2-stroke, every time the piston hits TDC it produces a power pulse. Linked to a three-sided cam, each cylinder produces three power strokes for every revolution of the camshaft (or crankshaft). Like Dulché’s design, engines could be air- or water-cooled, and while the patent describes an opposed 2-cylinder engine, the inventors claimed further cylinders could be added in a radial construction.

In the foreword, Cairns says his book is “not about answers, it is about ideas.” I would welcome some answers, but even so it’s a fascinating compilation of some of the oddest and most intriguing engines designed in the first half of the 20th century. If you enjoy engine history and development – and doing your own homework – you’ll likely be as intrigued as I was by Cairns’ choices. To inquire about the book, contact the author via email or through his website – Richard Backus

Know of an interesting patent? Contact Gas Engine Magazine at 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265 or email.