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The Cultivator
Thoughts from the editor.

The Evolution of Early Gas Engine Design

I find myself increasingly fascinated by patent drawings concerning early gas engines, as they afford us a window into the evolution of engine design. Pioneer engine designers were keen on divining new and unique methods of engine operation, and their approach to a problem was often driven by the necessity to overcome existing patents that could limit their aspirations.

For example, Nikolaus Otto’s 1877 U.S. patent for the 4-stroke internal combustion engine included the two-to-one camshaft/crankshaft gears to time valve opening and closing. This presented a significant obstacle to independent innovation, but inventive engineers designed “gearless” engines that used eccentrics rather than gears to control valve timing.

As the industry matured, engine designs continued to evolve. Governors to control engine speed are an example. There were simple designs, such as applied to hit-and-miss, with flywheel-mounted weights acting to interrupt valve or ignition operation. And there were complicated designs, including the artfully engineered cam-stopper arrangments used by companies such as Callahan and Columbus. Other designers came up with their own solutions, such as the governor designed by Peter Mohrdieck and used in Frisco Standard engines built by Standard Gas Engine Co., San Francisco, California.

As you can discover, Mohrdieck’s (patent No. 824,564) used a rotary valve to modulate the volume of the fuel/air mixture to the cylinder, the first application, so far as I know, of a rotary valve in a gas engine.

Likely expensive to manufacture due to the number of working parts and machined castings involved, Morhdieck’s design was yet in many ways brilliantly simple and precise. Essentially, it transferred rotational output from the crankshaft into longitudinal action at the governor back into rotational action at the valve. The spinning governor pushed a shaft that rotated a barrel-shaped valve to control the volume of fuel and air admitted into the intake stream ahead of the intake valve. Standard used this design on single-cylinder and multi-cylinder engines up through the 1910s, although at some point it was apparently modified to use a conventional butterfly valve.

For stationary farm use, Mohrdieck’s approach would have been unnecessarily complicated, but for marine applications, Standard’s major market, it would likely have been ideal in the early days of the industry, enabling finely tuned, consistent engine operation. Continuing advancements ultimately rendered Morhdieck’s design obsolete, but it’s interesting to examine today, a novel chapter in the evolution of the internal combustion engine.

As a final note, the 2019 show season will start before you know it, so don’t forget to order your copy of the 2019 Farm Collector Show Directory.

Richard Backus

Inspiring New Engine Collectors

One of the biggest issues facing the future of the old iron hobby is the simple question, “Who is going to carry the torch?” In the earliest days of the hobby, almost everyone came from a rural or farm background. Further, almost everyone had a direct, personal connection to the machinery they collected and restored. Whether it was because they’d personally run that old Stover to power a grinder, or their dad had or their granddad had, they had a direct and intimate connection with the old iron they collected. It meant something because it was familiar, a comfortable connection to the past.

Those first collectors, the old guard, if you will, have mostly passed away, or are nearing that time of life. Fortunately, just as many of the old guard came into the fold because of their fathers or grandfathers, so too did their sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters, a fact that’s kept the hobby vibrant and helped it grow. Yet as we all well appreciate, as time goes by fewer of the younger generations are attracted by our interest. In an increasingly digital world, our engines simply have no relevance, and we’re not sure how we can inspire individuals for whom there is no connection to see value in the old engines and equipment we so enthusiastically surround ourselves with.

That’s a very real concern, and one that clubs across the country have been actively confronting, often with programs and special attractions to inspire a younger generation to take an interest in what we do. There’s great promise in that approach, as I remain convinced there will always be a certain percentage – and yes, certainly a small one – of the population that will show interest in the hardware of the past. The trick of course is that they need to be introduced to it in the first place; they have to discover that it even exists.

Fortunately, beyond club efforts there are yet young adherents coming into the hobby through the time-honored channel of family, of parents and grandparents who fly the old iron flag. At this year’s Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, I noticed what seemed like an increase in younger attendees, and I had the chance to speak with a few, including 30-year-old Dan Newendorp, who was displaying a circa-1913 1-3/4 hp Associated Chore Boy, the first engine he’s ever owned or restored. As with many old engine fans in years past, Dan came to the hobby thanks to family, in this case his wife’s family, and more specifically her 90-year-old grandfather, Monroe, who gave Dan the Chore Boy, an engine Monroe’s father bought new.

In this little corner of the world, family connections still matter. It’s a fact that makes me feel confident we’ll continue to share our passion for old iron for years to come.

Uncovering the Past and Obscure Engine Manufacturers

This issue shines a light on several obscure manufacturers from the past, including White Lily Washer Co. and Schmidt Bros. Co. Engine Works, both of Davenport, Iowa. Although the full story of the apparently intertwining interests of these two firms remains to be discovered, Glenn Thompson’s article provides more information than I’ve seen anywhere. White Lily and Schmidt Bros. apparently sold the same engine, likely built at the same factory, but what exactly inspired their business practices appears to be lost to history. However, given the capacity of old engine collectors to ferret out seemingly lost information, we might yet learn more about the history of these two engine manufacturers.

On that note, Charles Wise shares the fruits of his research into the labors of Frank Hardenbrook and William Rice of Jasper, Missouri, designers of the air-cooled, ported exhaust engine ultimately made famous by Gade Bros. Mfg. Co., Iowa Falls, Iowa. The Gade engine was based on Hardenbrook and Rice’s 1904 patent. However, according to a 1901 newspaper article, the pair had patented an engine three years earlier, in 1901. While it is likely safe to assume the referenced patent featured an engine similar to the 1904 patent, that can’t be said with certainty as no patent prior to the 1904 awarding has surfaced. Further, it’s entirely possible there was no 1901 patent and that Hardenbrook and Rice were playing to the future, claiming a patent that had yet to be awarded, a not uncommon occurrence at the time. Given that they filed their application for the 1904 patent in 1902, it seems likely the basic features of the engine had been worked out well in advance during prototyping and initial design. Regardless, Charles’ research has uncovered a new and until now unpublished accounting of Hardenbrook and Rice’s efforts, and like the White Lily/Schmidt Bros. story, we can hope there’s more to learn.

Finally, following this unintended theme, Coolspring Power Museum founder Paul Harvey shares the interesting story of Victor Hugo Palm’s design for a “combined gas and air engine,” designed, as the phrase suggests, to run on gas or air.

Victor was the son of George Palm, who designed convertible gas/steam engines and established Palm Gas Engine Co., Butler, Pennsylvania, around 1900. Although there are no indications Victor’s design ever saw production, at least one scale engine following his design was constructed, although by whom is unknown. Paul happened across the scale engine and was able to purchase it, and he’s recently finished its restoration. With any luck, he’ll have it running on air – and maybe gas! – at the fall Coolspring Exposition and Swap Meet, Oct. 18-20, 2018.

Richard Backus


Gas Engines and Show Photos

We’re deep into the show season by now, and it looks like I’ll only make a few shows this year. With three magazines to oversee (I’m also responsible for sister publications Farm Collector and Motorcycle Classics) finding time to do everything I’d like to gets harder and harder.

I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll make Portland in late August, but I know I’ll be at the Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, over the Labor Day weekend and then the annual Power of the Past Antique Engine & Tractor Show, Sept. 7-9, 2018, in Ottawa, Kansas. Just about everyone knows about or has been to the Mt. Pleasant show, now in its 68th (!) year, and more people are hearing about and taking in the Ottawa show, a relative young-un with “only” 23 years under its belt.

That leaves me taking in much of the show season via other people’s photos of the great engines and tractors they see, and to that end I’d like to encourage everyone to send photos of the shows they attend and the engines they see during this year’s show season. Whether it’s just a few photos of especially interesting engines or a report on your club’s show or a show you attended, I’d like to hear from you and share your experiences with the rest of GEM’s readers. I know that like me, many of you will only have time to attend a handful of shows, and it’s always illuminating and entertaining to learn what’s going on at other events across the country.

Making things easier, the cameras in cell phones keep getting better and better, and it’s surprising how well they’ll often, but not always, reproduce. I still prefer a good digital camera, but I’m constantly amazed at the results I can get with my phone’s camera.

Digital photographs can be submitted directly to me via email at Send full-size, high-resolution images if you can, and if your email provider won’t let you send large image files there are plenty of free internet services to make it easy. Two that immediately come to mind are Dropbox and WeTransfer, with the latter probably being the easiest. You can send up to 2 gigabytes of images on WeTransfer, which is more than enough for most folks. And there’s always the tried and true U.S. Postal Service; you can mail me print images, a CD of images or put the images on a storage device like a thumb drive. Either way, I’m encouraging everyone to get out and take photos, then send them to me so we can share them with the rest of the old iron community.

And don’t forget to keep us posted on your latest engine finds and restorations, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that we all love seeing and reading about the interesting engines that continue to come out of the woodwork.

Stewards of Gas Engine History

Whether by intention or necessity, collectors regularly find themselves funneling their old engine energy into historical research, becoming stewards of history in more ways than “simply” restoring and keeping their old engines running.

The point comes up thanks to two articles in this issue, Charles Wise’s excellent piece on the Walls engine and Jim White’s examination of the production roster of John Deere’s kerosene EK engine line. In their respective articles, both Charles and Jim took on the role of researcher and historian, seeking out relevant documents for insight and information on their chosen subject.

Charles, as you’ll read in his article “Rediscovering the Walls”, searched through old advertisements and newspaper clippings for any records that could help him understand the history and development of the Walls engine, designed by Cicero Walls in the early 1890s. For his article on John Deere’s EK engine line, Jim looked at over 100,000 serial numbers in the John Deere archives to come up with complete production data for the three EK variations produced (1-1/2 hp, 3 hp and 6 hp). In both cases, the authors discovered new and interesting information.

Researching the EK line, Jim found unexplained anomalies in EK prefixes in the factory notes, points of fact that will be of great interest to EK collectors. In his research, Charles uncovered the compelling story of an engine designer who, eager to enter the nascent gas engine business, turned to Keystone Iron Works, an established foundry in Fort Madison, Iowa, about 1894, to produce his engines. About a year later, Walls took over production when he founded Decatur Gasoline Engine Co. with his brother-in-law. That concern apparently lasted no more than a year or so, after which Keystone Iron Works began building a variation of Cicero Walls’ 1893 engine design under an 1896 patent awarded to George Lamos, Keystone’s owner. That’s a curious progression that begs as many questions as it answers, including whether Walls made an arrangement with Lamos giving the latter rights to his basic design? Whatever the case, Walls went out of business, but Keystone Iron Works continued making its version of the Walls engine until perhaps 1900 or so.

Lost as they are to time, it’s unlikely we’ll find the answers to some of these questions. And yet, who could have imagined that 72 years after the last John Deere EK left the factory we’d still be uncovering new and detailed information about EK production? Or that almost 125 years after the fact we’d be discovering for the first time the unique story of an engine and its designer?

Thanks to the never-ending curiosity of engine collectors everywhere, we’re constantly treated to new discoveries to fuel our imagination, and our interest in learning as much as we can about the companies that made the engines we collect.

Old Engines Are Still Out There

The quality of engines that continue to come out of the woodwork – quite literally in this case – continues to amaze me.

The engine I’m referring to is a rare, circa-1915 15 hp Ohio, found in a long abandoned pump house next to an old inn on an island off the coast of Maine. And the reference to coming out of the woodwork? The wood-framed roof of the old pump house had to be surgically cut open – and then replaced – so the engine could be lifted out with a crane!

Rescued by veteran engine man Mike O’Malley, the engine had been found some 30-plus years earlier by engine collector Alec Stevens. Buying it was another issue, the seller clearly intent on keeping it where it was. Undaunted, Alec routinely checked up on the engine and patiently waited for the opportunity to purchase the Ohio. Ironically, after all that time, when the opportunity finally came and the owner decided to sell, Alec’s personal circumstances dictated otherwise. Fortunately, he knew that Mike would give the engine a good home, so he handed the opportunity over to him.

It’s an incredible story from just about every angle. For starters, there’s the simple fact of Alec finding the engine in the first place. The Ohio had been out of operation for decades and few people even knew of its existence. It would probably still be sitting in the pump house if Alec hadn’t learned of it. Second, the engine was still plumbed, as if ready for service. Third, there’s the engine itself, a rare and extremely attractive tank-cooled 15 hp Ohio sideshaft engine with a vertical flyball governor. And it was complete, right down to the original igniter, which, after being replaced at some juncture with a spark plug, had been stored on a shelf, where it remained until the day Mike removed the engine from the pump house.

And of course there’s the extraction of the engine, which is indeed what this was, with the engine removed from the pump house using slings and a crane, but only after cutting the roof open for access. As was often done back in the day, the engine was most likely installed in the pump house after the foundation was poured, but before the walls and roof were erected.

Mike’s story has every element of the classic, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime find, with an added twist: he had to hire a barge to ferry his truck and trailer to the island, and to get the now-loaded trailer back to the mainland.

The finding and saving of the Ohio is the stuff of dreams for collectors. Here’s hoping there are many more dreams to be lived – and that we get to share them here! Go here to read Mike’s incredible story about the Ohio.

Remembering Dave and Bob

November 2017 was a bad month in the old iron community, witnessing the loss of two of the hobby’s – and GEM’s – staunchest supporters; Dave Rotigel, who passed away Nov. 10 at the age of 79, and Bob Crowell, who passed away the next day, Nov. 11, at the age of 76. Diagnosed with cancer, Dave’s passing wasn’t altogether unexpected, but Bob’s came unexpectedly, apparently suffering a heart attack while doing yardwork, a favorite pastime of his.

Of the hundreds of fine people I’ve had the pleasure to meet and get to know in my time at GEM, Dave and Bob stand out in particular. In 2001, when I took over the helm at GEM, Dave and Bob were the first to personally call and congratulate me on my good fortune. They were both genuinely excited for me, and they quickly appreciated that at that time I knew little about the old iron hobby. I had a strong mechanical background, with lots of wrench time on cars and motorcycles, but vintage engines? I’d never seen or worked on an IHC M or a Fairbanks Z, much less even contemplated flame ignition or half-breed oil field engines. 

Dave called me within a few weeks of my hire, and over a series of subsequent conversations he patiently gave me a crash course in Hit-and-Miss 101, explaining the variations and intricacies of the engines he collected, helping me understand and appreciate why he collected them and what they – and the community – meant to him. Bob’s call came shortly after, and I’ll never forget his bubbling enthusiasm for GEM and the people who populate its pages. Where Dave, one of the most intelligent and critically insightful people I’ve ever met, could be challenging and direct – a byproduct, no doubt, of his years in academia – Bob could disarm with his wide-eyed  embrace for the people and the engines they collected. It’s no wonder he spent much of his life involved with younger people, whether through coaching high school track or supporting various clubs and initiatives.

I first met Dave and Bob in person at Portland in 2001, and since then they have been constants, regular contributors and diehard supporters of the magazine – Dave forever chiding fellow engine collectors to send articles and subscribe to GEM and Bob and his lovely wife, Linda, promoting GEM and Farm Collector subscriptions at Portland and other shows. Their influence had become so regular, it became easy to take it for granted. 

I hadn’t seen Dave or Bob in a few years, and it’s sobering to realize the next time I go to Portland or Mt. Pleasant, Dave won’t be there making some wise-crack and Bob won’t greet me with his regular “Hey, Kiddo” as I walk toward our tent. Those are sad thoughts, but they’re made happier by having known Dave and Bob in the first place. They were rare men, and we’re all poorer for their passing.

Richard Backus


Gas Engine Magazine A_M 16Gas Engine Magazine is your best source for tractor and stationary gas engine information.  Subscribe and connect with more than 23,000 other gas engine collectors and build your knowledge, share your passion and search for parts, in the publication written by and for gas engine enthusiasts! Gas Engine Magazine brings you: restoration stories, company histories, and technical advice. Plus our Flywheel Forum column helps answer your engine inquiries!

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