When I think of popular oil field engines, two engines come to my mind; Reid and the venerable Bessemer. This month, I'd like to present a short history of the founding of the Bessemer Gas Engine Co.
Edwin J. Fithian, generally regarded as the founder of the company, started his career as a medical doctor. Receiving his medical degree in 1892, he established a practice in Portersville, Pa., moving a year later to the nearby village of Harmony.
Several small oil producers were among Fithian's patients, and they often complained they would be forced out of business because of the aging boilers and high maintenance steam systems they had to contend with. 'Being always of a mechanical term of mind,' as Fithian described himself, he wondered if the escaping natural gas at oil wells couldn't be used to power the pumps.
Fithians interest prompted him to join forces with George Willets and his brother, Reuben, in developing an internal combustion engine. In 1897 he purchased the Willets' interest for $900, hired them to continue working for wages, then sold their share to lumberman H. W. Bentle. After several months of experimentation, a 10 HP engine was completed and tested.
Even though an oil well supply company turned down his engine, Fithian lost no confidence in his product. He was impatient to move toward manufacturing oil well pumping engines before someone else captured his intended market. First, however he was forced to repurchase the interest owned by Bentle, who was too discouraged to further pursue the venture.
Searching for a new partner, Fithian contacted machine shop operator John Carruthers, who was experimenting with a similar engine in nearby Callery Junction, Pa. It was a fortunate choice. Fithian was an idea man and Carruthers could turn ideas into productive creations.
Analyzing the plight of oil well drillers, they decided most could not afford to abandon their steam engines, inefficient as they were, and purchase new gas engines. Fithian had pondered the idea of replacing steam engine cylinders with cylinders that could be powered by escaping gas. Carruthers liked the suggestion, but such a changeover necessitated a friction clutch and there was no such creature on the market. Not surprisingly, they decided to make the clutch themselves.
In 1898 the Carruthers-Fithian Clutch Co. was formed. After inspecting several possible locations, the partners agreed on the small town of Grove City, where Fithian had attended college. Fithian's brother-in-law, Dr. L. B. Monroe, a Grove City dentist, promoted a citizens fund drive that enticed the company with the property of the abandoned J.C. Brandon's Tile Works. Carruthers supervised conversion of the building into a manufacturing shop, while Fithian phased out his medical practice.
The company's original name has led to debate over which came first, the cylinder or the clutch. And while the answer isn't known, the Carruthers-Fithian two-cycle gas cylinder and friction clutch were sold in tandem. For $125, an oil producer could remove a steam engine's cylinder and replace it with a 10 HP gas cylinder/clutch combination. A 15 HP outfit cost $175.
Acceptance of what became known as the 'half-breed' was so immediate the company was unable to meet the demands of its first major customer, South Penn Oil Co. For three years South Penn purchased every cylinder it could get from the fledgling company, and even paid royalties to manufacture additional halfbreeds in its own shop at Allegheny, placing them on more than 10,000 well-pumping units in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Meanwhile, the company itself took a natural step into gas engine manufacturing. In need of a new company name, the partners decided to capitalize on the prestige of a renowned steelmaking process known as the Bessemer converter. In 1899 the Bessemer Gas Engine Co. was incorporated, with the Carruthers-Fithian Clutch Co. continuing for several years as a separate entity in name only.
Beginning with a two-cycle 5 HP natural gas engine, Bessemer enlarged its line steadily. In 1900 its first enclosed-case engine was introduced. The original factory expanded into a complex, and they added the design and manufacture of vertical pumps, roller pumping power equipment, an oil well pumping jack and a small gas/kerosene engine, all with varying degrees of success. Some products were developed, then abandoned when attention was drawn to something more interesting. The direct-gas, engine-driven compressor, pioneer of casing-head gasoline production, was a success from its inception. On the other hand, a vertical gas engine was brought to final development, then scrapped without a single sale.
It appeared highly improbable that the two men who together molded Bessemer's configuration could exist as a team. Their personalities seemed incompatible, yet they rarely argued and it was well known that neither would tolerate an unkind word about the other.
Employees often described Carruthers with the single word 'tough.' A stocky man of medium height with iron-gray hair and mustache, the Bessemer president spent most of his time in the factory shops. Work was a compulsion for him, and he could not accept it being less than the same for everyone else.
Carruthers's demands were balanced by an instinctive impulse to assist employees. Walking through the shops, always dressed in a light-colored suit employees secretly referred to as his ice cream uniform, he would always pause to help replace a belt or hold a tool.
Regarded as a mastermind of machinery, he held several patents and his designs were found in all Bessemer products. But many of those designs were never recorded on paper. It was not uncommon for Carruthers to walk out into the plant, a piece of chalk in hand, and sketch his ideas on the floor. Machinists followed the chalked directions as the president supervised. Several developments in engines were thus recorded only temporarily on the Bessemer machine shop floor.
While Carruthers was occupied in the factory, Fithian headed administrative activities in the office. An observer would have been hard pressed to determine which of the two men was chief executive officer, and neither of them worried about making such a distinction. Tall and lean with a carriage that commanded respect, employees held Fithian in awe. Mo one addressed him by any name other than Dr. Fithian. Even behind his back he was referred to as 'the doctor,' although his medical practice was reduced to personally handling all first aid services for employees.
Fithian's inventiveness was reflected in his home, which over a period of time became a self-contained estate. Water from drilled wells was stored in a huge standpipe located in the woods, maintaining a pressurized supply to the entire property, which included a swimming pool and a greenhouse. A gas well supplied fuel to heat buildings and run a generator that provided electricity. The house itself featured brick construction with air-pocketed walls giving the effect of air conditioning.
Fithian never appeared to waver from total control of his dignity. The doctor could not abide drinking, smoking, or swearing. He also opposed dancing and playing cards. Religion, although extremely important to him, was not the sole basis for such feelings. He was angered by seeing families go hungry while the breadwinners drank, smoked and gambled. In addition, he carried the influence of a strong prohibitionist father who had seen a close friend nearly killed by a man in a drunken stupor. It was said that Fithian hated alcoholics as a group, but was sympathetic to individual drunks. He literally picked them out of gutters and tried to set them straight.
Fithian's imposing demeanor was seldom interpreted as stuffiness. Voters elected him mayor, and he unsuccessfully ran for both governor and the senate under the Prohibitionist party ticket. It was characteristic that for his campaign he designed what many people claimed to be the nation's first motor home. Using the elongated frame of a truck, candidate Fithian and Grove City mechanic Ed Black constructed a special bus for the campaign trail. The interior, designed by the doctor, featured cut velvet upholstery, built-in storage cabinets, a Pullman seat, table, icebox, lavatory, and pure silk window shades. The vehicle had a rear platform resembling that of a railroad coach, from which he spoke to voters across the state of Pennsylvania.
Bessemer Gas Engine Co. eventually merged with what today is Cooper Industries, and many engines carry the name Cooper-Bessemer. Cooper, a large, worldwide corporation, consists of the mergers of many companies in America's industrial history, such as Superior Gas Engine Co., Ajax, Gardner-Denver, Lufkin, Crescent and many others.
The contributions of Dr. Edwin J. Fithian and John Carruthers to history are not as well known as those of the Wright brothers or Henry Ford, but we who collect old oil field engines can appreciate the genius of these men who built engines that have stood the test of time. Special thanks to Cooper Industries for permission to excerpt from Cooper Industries 1833-1983 by David N. Keller, a history of the Cooper company.
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