Oil Field Engine News

Looking Back: A Short History of Ajax Iron Works

Picture 1

Content Tools

In 1877 businessman Lewis L Bliss joined his brother-in-law, Clifford H. Bagley, and two other businessmen, Clarence G. Harmon and George H. Gibbs, in organizing a company to manufacture steam-powered drilling engines in Corry, Pa. The growing oil industry in Pennsylvania, following the first oil well drilled in Titusville in 1859 would provide a ready market for their product. Named Harmon, Gibbs & Company, the group constructed a three-story building, and began production of 12 HP steam engines.

As oil wells grew deeper, the young company built larger engines, building a 150 HP engine after just a few years in business. In 1892 the company was incorporated as the Ajax Iron Works. The name Ajax, with reference to the Greek hero from Homer's Iliad, had been adapted for several years to one of the company's drilling engines. Corporation rights were granted to Ajax as 'machinists, founders and engine builders.'

Ajax business grew rapidly after the turn of the 20th century. An Ajax gas engine had already added to its line, the first having been produced in 1895. By 1911 more than 1,200 Ajax engines had been sold. In 1920 National Supply Company became exclusive oil field distributor of Ajax engines. At the same time, Ajax discontinued its gas engine, returning to an exclusive steam engine line. Some within the company opposed the move, believing the Ajax gas engine design compared favorably with that of competitors. However, it was felt the plant did not have sufficient capacity to continue manufacturing both gas and steam engines. Said one advocate of steam power, 'A steam engine will run forever. It just gets a little noisier and a little looser, but as long as you put the steam to her, she'll run.' Indeed, the first Ajax engine built in 1877 was going strong until 1968 when it was retired to a museum, still fully operable.

views of Goble Rogers' 115 HP Ajax Model DP-115. Goble's Ajax made its first outing at this year's Hillbilly Flywheelers Show in Irvine, Ky., April 25-27, 2003.

Surviving the Depression doldrums, when oil business had dwindled to a trickle, Ajax continued to develop new and better steam engines. When World War II engulfed the nation, low priorities for oil field drilling nearly created a shutdown at Ajax (the low priority was a consequence of oil producers assuring the government they had sufficient drilling to sustain the war effort). To keep the plant in operation the company searched for a product it could produce that would be vital to the war effort. This product was found in the form of a contract with the Maritime Commission to produce marine steam engines for use on costal vessels. Ranging from 400 to 3,000 HP, each engine required two railroad cars for disassembled shipment. For its contribution to the war effort Ajax received the U.S. Maritime 'M' pennant and Victory fleet flag on Sept. 23, 1944.

views of Goble Rogers' 115 HP Ajax Model DP-115. Goble's Ajax made its first outing at this year's Hillbilly Flywheelers Show in Irvine, Ky., April 25-27, 2003.

Like most manufacturers, Ajax faced a need to stabilize its business after war contracts expired. The situation was compounded because it was evident steam engines would soon be outdated in all but a few markets. Returning to production of natural gas engines was a logical solution, but the company had been out of that business for a quarter of a century. To meet competition, it would need to purchase a gas engine that had been developed over the years. Superior Engine Division of the National Supply Company, located in Springfield, Ohio, had just such a design for sale. In 1945, Ajax bought the Superior line of slow-speed horizontal gas engines and launched a half-million dollar changeover of its plant facilities.

The first Ajax gas engine utilizing the acquired Superior design rolled off the assembly line in the fall of 1946. Thus, the balance scale was tipped unquestionably toward gas products. With the growth of its gas engines, the company entered the relatively new, secondary oil-recovery market, bringing in oil from abandoned or unproductive wells by such methods as water flooding and gas injection.

The company still suffered a severe business slump from 1949 to 1950, while proving its ability to manufacture gas engines. The assistant general manager at the time, Lloyd Lanphere, explained, 'In spite of our enviable reputation as builders of the world's best steam drilling engine, gas engine users at first were skeptical of our ability to redesign and build a gas engine of comparable quality. Many prospects in the beginning bought engines on a strict 'let's try one and see' basis, then waited for cost and performance tabulations. Soon most of those customers were satisfied that we could build a good gas product, and they demonstrated their faith by buying in larger quantities.' In 1963 the Cooper-Bessemer Corporation purchased Ajax.

Goble Rogers of Irvine, Ky., sent photos of his recently restored 115 HP Ajax Model DP-115 at its first show at the Hillbilly Flywheelers Show in Irvine, Ky., April 25-27, 2003. It is a post-Superior purchase engine, probably built sometime between 1947 and the mid-1950s. Bore and stroke is 13-1/2 inches by 16 inches, the exhaust is 8 inches and the engine weighs approximately 9 tons. The radiator holds 30 gallons of water and the crankcase holds 22 gallons of oil.

Special thanks to Goble Rogers for his help with this article and to Cooper industries for permission to reprint excerpts from their company history, Cooper Industries.

As always if you would like a free membership in the Oil Field Engine Society please call, write or e-mail me at the address below.

Contact the Oil Field Engine Society at: 1231 Banta's Creek Road, Eaton, OH 45320-9701, (937) 456-9387. Visit the OFES on the Web at www.oilfieldengine.com or e-mail: oilengine@voyager.net