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Wright Brothers Engine

Combustion Engine

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Some of the earliest developments of the internal combustion engine were driven by the idea of using natural gas, the byproduct of oil drilling, to fuel an engine. Half-breed steam engines (steam engines converted to gas) as developed by Edwin Fithian, founder of the Bessemer Gas Engine Co., were introduced in the very infancy of the development of gas engines. Forward-thinking men like Fithian, John Carruthers, Dugald Clerk, Nicolas Otto, Joseph Reid and others pressed engine science in the search for increased efficiencies and higher horsepower to provide the motive force necessary for the growth of the industrial world.

As an ever-increasing number of steam engines were either converted into or replaced by internal combustion engines, the high power demands of the oil and gas industry resulted in the manufacture of some of the largest gas engines ever built. Industrial and oil field engines were heavy, massive units designed to run for hours or days with unattended service. These engines generally ran at low speeds, and a 25 HP engine could easily weigh as much as 8,000 or 10,000 pounds. On the other hand, the development of the automobile was made possible by small, relatively light, multi-cylinder high-speed engines that were yet powerful enough to do the job. Many of the industrial and technological advancements in the last 100 years have depended on the advance of engine technology.

Another form of transportation made possible by the development of better internal combustion engines was the airplane, and Dec. 17 marks the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first flight of a powered aircraft. The Wright Brothers are credited with their development of the airplane and advancements in aerodynamics, but you never hear mention of the great engine that they and one other gentleman developed, an engine that made their flight possible.

While most everyone has heard of the Wright Brothers, do you know who Charles Taylor was? Wilbur and Orville Wright designed the one-of-a-kind engine with the help of their bicycle shop mechanic, Charles Taylor, who fabricated the engine in a matter of weeks working with simple tools, no blueprints and what was then exotic technology, including a crankcase made of cast aluminum.

1903 engine built by the Wright Brothers and Charles Taylor. This engine powered the Wright Brothers' first flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

In 1903 it was nearly impossible to find an engine manufacturer able to meet the Wrights' design requirements of an 8-10 HP engine weighing less than 200 pounds. Automotive engine manufacturers could come close, but could not meet the Wrights' specific needs. Nor would they be willing to set up tooling to produce the one or two engines the Wright Brothers needed for their experiments. At the time of the Wrights' first flight, few of their contemporaries were using gasoline powered internal combustion engines for flight experiments. While aviation pioneers such as Langley, Maxim and Ader used steam power in their designs, time has shown that the Wright Brothers' choice of a gas engine was the right one.

The engine Taylor and the Wrights built was a horizontal four-cylinder, four-cycle water-cooled design with magneto ignition and cam-tripped igniters for each cylinder.

The Wrights, concerned that 'slop' in the propeller drive chains and miss-fires of the engine would cause excessive vibrations on the aircraft, installed a flywheel on one end of the engine to smooth things out. The engine first ran on Feb. 12, 1903. It produced 12 HP and powered the 1903 flyer on the first four flights on Dec. 17 of that year. Still, the short flights made on that day showed the aircraft was overweight and underpowered.

In the following years the Wrights developed better and more powerful engine designs. The Wrights built a pontoon boat as a test base on which they often tested their engine and propeller designs, 'air-boating' on the Miami River in Dayton, Ohio. The Wrights eventually adopted a vertical four-cylinder design for their popular Wright 'B' flyer, and 24 years after the Wrights' first flight Charles Lindbergh stunned the world by flying non-stop - and solo - from New York to Paris in an airplane powered by a single Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine. The astounding thing is that only five years before no successful air-cooled engine such as the J-5 even existed in the U.S, and until the birth of the jet-age after WW II, all aircraft used piston engines. Development in jet and rocket engine technology made possible the manned flight to the moon.

Today there are experimental 'engines' so small they can only be seen with the aid of a microscope, and it seems possible that in the very near future an engine the size of a postage stamp might power your cell phone. Considering what advancements in engine technology have made possible, we should all have a better appreciation of the old engines we lovingly work on and exhibit.

As always, anyone interested in a free membership in the Oil Field Engine Society please call, write or e-mail to the address below.

Contact the Oil Field Engine Society at: 1231 Banta's Creek Road, Eaton, OH 45320-9701. On the Web at www.oilfieldengine.com or e-mail at: oilengine@voyager.net