Coolspring Power Museum Expo 2015: Flame Ignition Engines

Event's 30th anniversary sees a record turnout of engines and gas engine enthusiasts at the Coolspring Power Museum.

| October/November 2015

What a difference a year makes – or in this case 20 years. In 1995, the Coolspring Power Museum, Coolspring, Pennsylvania, marked its 10th anniversary with a special Summer Expo celebrating flame ignition engines. Organized by John Rex and the late Nate Lillibridge, the event drew an estimated 1,000 old engine fans from across the country. It was a unique opportunity to witness a special gathering of flame ignition engines in operation, and as Coolspring founder Paul Harvey remembers, there were around five flame ignition engines on display, along with another 10 or so “very interesting pre-1895 engines. It was a well received and attended show,” Harvey recalls.

Interest in early internal combustion engines – specifically engines produced since the Otto and Langen of 1867, which used flame ignition to commence the combustion process – has continued to increase markedly, a fact reflected in the interest shown for this year’s 30th Anniversary Summer Expo, which for the second time in the museum’s history put the spotlight on flame ignition engines. Organized by well-known engine historian, restoration expert and scale model designer/builder Wayne Grenning, the 2015 event drew more than 4,000 visitors to witness the largest collection of flame ignition engines ever gathered in one place at one time in the U.S. – at least 60 in total, and that’s not counting the dozens of Paradox and other toy engines on display.

Behind the scenes

Planning for the event started in 2012 when Grenning, looking forward to the museum’s 30th anniversary, suggested to the museum board repeating 1995’s successful flame ignition theme. “The first thing the museum did was say, ‘OK, so you’re volunteering for this, right?’” Grenning recalls, adding, “And I said I guess I should.” In 2013 Grenning, along with his father and engine collector and Coolspring Museum volunteer Woody Sins, traveled to Nuenen, Netherlands, for the 25th annual Nuenen stationary engine rally. Slide-valve engines were a featured theme at Nuenen that year, with at least 15 displayed. Knowing this, Grenning printed up flyers announcing the planned Coolspring event and passed them out at Nuenen, hoping to inspire international interest in the Coolspring show.

That winter, Grenning sent out letters to every known owner of flame ignition engines in the U.S. and Canada, inviting the owners to display their engines at the planned Expo and promising proper care and recognition of their engines. As an added inducement, he pledged the museum would foot the bill for the expensive and hard to acquire hydrogen gas necessary to run flame ignition engines. Importantly, thanks to his job with fuel specialists Praxair, Grenning could secure hydrogen fuel at a discounted rate.

That early seeding paid off handsomely. The 2015 event attracted engine fans from around the world, with an estimated 100 engine collectors traveling to Coolspring from Europe and Australia to see the record collection of engines on display – more than 50 of them brought by owners from across the U.S. and Canada. Recognizing the importance of the event, Rough & Tumble Historical Association in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, made available the 1/2 hp 1867/1868 Otto and Langen engine in its collection, which holds the distinction of being the oldest internal combustion engine in North America and the third oldest running engine in the world.

The engines

“I really wanted the Otto and Langen to show up,” Grenning says. For Grenning, that engine’s importance extends beyond its place in history as the first practical internal combustion engine. It’s also important because it’s a direct, physical link to its inventor, Nikolaus Otto, father of the 4-stroke or Otto Cycle engine, the design that underpins internal combustion engines yet today. “It’s one of the things Otto himself touched and built,” Grenning marvels.