The Runaway Engine

Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine

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Route 2, Box 129 Troy, Tennessee 38260.

My father, Schaffer Livingston, stood in the engine room and surveyed the destruction around him. The magnificent Fairbanks-Morse 50 HP engine stood tilted at a crazy angle, its concrete foundation shattered as if by a giant jackhammer. Of the eight foot flywheel, there was only the hub with the stubs of spokes remaining. Daylight streamed through the roof and one outside wall, mute testimony as to where the missing wheel rim had gone. Broken pipes and fittings decorated the chaotic scene, 'I guess the governor failed and she just ran away!' said the owner of the cotton gin. In any case, whatever had happened had been fatal for the engine and Fairbanks-Morse had sent my father to try and determine the cause. 'Perhaps the governor did fail, but before we condemn the engine, let's look at all the facts,' said Dad. 'Tell me everything you know about what happened prior to the accident.' With the help of the owner and gin operator he pieced together the following sad tale.

The year was 1927 and with the ginning season almost at hand in the Mississippi Delta, the gin owner still had not found an engineer to replace the man who had operated the big engine the past year. His frantic pleas for help were rewarded by the arrival of a man who stated that he had had several years experience with gasoline and oil engines. Never had he operated a Fairbanks 2 cycle engine, but 'an engine was an engine,' and if you could operate one you should be able to figure out how to make any other kind of run. He was hired on the spot and told to make the engine ready as cotton would be arriving to be ginned any day.

The next morning the 'engineer' began to check over the engine in preparation for firing it up. The Man-zel lubricator was filled with oil and nine months accumulation of dust and cobwebs were wiped off. In order to check the crankcase oil, he found that he had to remove an inspection door as he had been unable to locate the dipstick. Apparently the previous engineer had drained the crankcase at the end of ginning season since no oil could be seen except in pockets at each end. Oil was obtained and poured through the inspection door to the proper level. The inspection door was replaced and tightened down, fuel tank turned on and gasoline placed in the tank of the air compressor engine.

The 'engineer' gave the little Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine a whirl and it sprang to life pulling the compressor, or as it was known in the Delta, 'the air monkey'. The air was needed to spin the 50 HP engine to start it

The 'engineer' gave the little Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine a whirl and it sprang to life pulling the compressor, or as it was known in the Delta, 'the air monkey'. The air was needed to spin the 50 HP engine to start it. The gasoline blowtorch on the cylinder head was lit and its flame directed at the exposed end of the 'hot plug.' While the air pressure was building up and the plug getting hot, a long steel bar was inserted into a hole in the massive flywheel. The wheel was turned or 'barred' into starting position so that when the air was turned into the cylinder, the engine would turn in the proper direction to start. Now, with air up, the hot plugs good and red and fuel in the injector, he pulled the starting lever to spin the engine. The lever was returned to 'run' and the engine coughed to life with a series of ear splitting pops. The heavy flywheel began to accelerate and the engine came up to speed.

Now the trouble started as the speed continued to build up. Our 'engineer' became a little concerned as the speed seemed to show no sign of stabilizing and continued to increase. Keeping his cool, he shut off the fuel supply. Instead of slowing and stopping, the big Fairbanks continued its suicidal acceleration. Something was definitely wrong! The engine was now a thing gone mad, vibrating and roaring at the top of its voice. The 'engineer' took one look at the crumbling foundation and deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, took to his heels for the nearest exit. He left none too soon, for the worst was yet to come! The huge flywheel could stand the stress no longer and came apart. One piece went out through the roof leaving a jagged hole, another sailed through the outside wall and mowed a 300 foot long swath through a late corn field, a third chunk cruised into the gin machinery and effectively turned it into junk. The engine finally came to a halt tilted on its shattered foundation.

A frantic call to the New Orleans office of Fairbanks-Morse resulted in my father heading to the gin on the first available train. He had been Supervisor of Installation for several years and had installed the big engines from the deep south to the upper peninsula of Michigan. He checked the sad remains and deduced the reason for the untimely demise of the big diesel. There was nothing mechanically wrong with the engine or its governor. If you haven't figured out what happened by now, perhaps it will be well to remember that this was a 2 cycle engine. There should have been no oil in the crank case except for that in the reservoirs at each end. The oil was carried in small amounts by centrifugal force from these reservoirs to the rod bearings. The oil that had been incorrectly added to the crank-case was splashed about by the connecting rod and drawn up through the bypass port into the cylinder where it was burned as fuel. The faster the engine ran, the more the oil was splashed about and the more was carried up to be burned. The engine ran faster, splashed even more oil and accelerated until cast iron and concrete could stand no more.

I am sure that this was not the only early engine that was destroyed by a lack of knowledge on the part of the operator. We still have the problem with us today. I personally saw a 6 HP Economy being operated at a show by a man who did not even know that it was supposed to be a hit and miss engine! The governor was not latching up and the engine was continuing to accelerate when a friend and I intervened and shut off the fuel. Always make sure that you thoroughly understand the operation of your engines before you run them.