Is This The World's Smallest Real Ericsson?

Disassembled Ericsson Engine

The 5' Ericsson, disassembled for the trip to Wisconsin.

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7574 S. 74th Street Franklin, Wisconsin 53132

Ever since seeing my first Ericsson hot air pumping engine in a junk yard as a 14-year-old kid, I have wanted to own a real one. That particular engine had pumped water on the wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and it captivated my interest. Even though I had built the very nice Keeley-Myers model Ericsson engine, it didn't entirely satisfy my interest.

In 1990, some friends and I were traveling in the south, making a video of the last stationary steam engines in operation. These were big Corliss and slide valve engines running sawmills, sugar mills, syrup mills and a mine hoist. We stopped at one particular university because one of my friends was going to purchase their lab steam engine. Engineering schools used to teach steam engineering and had small steam engines, of which many have been sold. This college also had a 6' Ericsson hot air engine, as many schools did. This was used as a teaching tool, but it wasn't for sale.

A day later, we visited the home of an engine collector in Alabama, and I spotted a tiny Ericsson in his collection. The thing about it that really appealed to me was that it was short. The top of the flywheel only came up to my belt! A 5' Ericsson should be taller than this one was. In the course of conversation, I let the collector know that if he ever wanted to sell it, I would like to have the first shot. At that, he said that it wasn't doing him very much good, and he would be willing to sell. We settled on a price and with a handshake, I became the owner of a real Ericsson.

Over a year would pass before I could return to retrieve my new toy. This time my family accompanied me on a Thanksgiving weekend trip to get the engine. After one last run of the engine, we disassembled it so we could fit the pieces in the back of my Taurus wagon.

The cast brass nameplate states that the engine was built by The Rider Engine Company. Rider built Ericsson style engines, along with their own Rider style, until Rider and the DeLa-mater Iron Works were merged into the Rider Ericsson Engine Company in 1895. After that date, their engines went by the name REECO, until the company's collapse in 1929. For those of you who think that hot air engines were not very common, in 1910, REECO had advertised that they had built over 30,000 engines.

My engine was built before 1895, but just how long before, there is no way of knowing. All factory records were thrown away when the REECO buildings were emptied in 1939, when the buildings' owners got a defense contract for the pre-war rush. The construction number stamped on the cast brass tag is 397, and the plate states that it is a 5' engine, as that is the way Rider designated their 5' size engine. The engine was purchased new by Auburn University for their engineering lab.

The engine's squat look comes from the short cast legs and the short cast coal furnace. All the other 5' Ericsson engines that I have seen, use the same legs and firebox as a 6' engine. This makes my engine unique. There are two small tapped holes in the power piston link, where, I assume, the engineering students attached their indicators, so the efficiency of the engine could be measured.

The 5' engine pumped considerably less water than the 6' and 8' sizes. Catalogs state that the 5' engine would pump 150 gallons per hour, while the 6' engine would pump 300 gallons per hour. I do know that other school labs had5' engines. The 5' engine cost $120 when new. I have also been told that 5' engines were used at lighthouses, for ringing fog bells. The lighthouse engines had a hole through the flywheel rim for some sort of attachment to the bell mechanism. I understand that some of these engines have been saved, but most were probably scrapped or pushed into the water when they rusted out or when new equipment arrived.

To date, this is the only short Ericsson engine that I know of and may be the only one left in existence.