The amazing Lightning Balanced Engine from Kansas City Hay Press Co.
Company: Built by Kansas City Hay Press Co., Kansas City, Mo.
Model: Lightning Balanced Engine
Shop number: 878
Year: Circa 1905
HP: 6 at 350 RPM
Flywheel diameter: 39 inches
Flywheel width: 3-1/4 inches
Ignition: Hit-and-miss, low-tension magneto and igniter
Retail price in 1905: Approximately $900
For mechanical engineers, the quest for the perfect-running engine has always been a holy grail of sorts. Even in the earliest days of the internal-combustion engine, engineers worked at designing engines that would do more than simply run. They would be models of perfection, perfectly balanced, delivering power in carefully orchestrated mechanical concert.
Horizontally opposed engines, which effectively cancel out primary engine imbalances, were among the earliest designs to address this basic quest, and manufacturers across the spectrum of engines adopted the design. To this day, the opposed engine is still the prime mover for a number of automotive manufacturers, chief among them are Porsche and Subaru.
But what if you were an engine designer at the dawning of the 20th century, searching for the answer to a smooth-running engine without the complexity of extra cylinders? Current technology applies weighted countershafts to cancel out inherent engine imbalances in single-cylinder and inline engines. For whatever reasons, early engine designers didn't go that direction, but they did pursue some interesting avenues of their own.
By 1900, the Kansas City Hay Press Co., Kansas City, Mo., was an established manufacturer of hay presses and other agricultural implements. The boom in engine building was on, and the company clearly decided it needed to move with the times and develop its own line of farm engines.
In 1901, E.H. Korsmeyer, working for Kansas City Hay Press, applied for a patent for 'new and useful improvements in governing and valve-operating mechanism for gas and vapor engines.' Although Korsmeyer's patent application (granted patent no. 708,485 on Sept. 2, 1902) specifically addressed ignition timing and valve actuation, it is the overall design incorporated into the engine that captivates engine collectors to this day.
About 1901, Kansas City Hay Press began manufacturing and marketing Korsmeyer's design as the 'Lightning' line of engines. With the Lightning engine, Kansas City Hay Press presented its answer to the quest for the perfectly balanced engine. Offered in sizes ranging from 4 HP to 22 HP, Lightning engines were an entirely different proposition in farm engines.
The most obvious mechanical feature is the engine's unique single-cylinder, opposed two-piston design. The Lightning engine dispenses with the accepted cylinder head. Instead, two pistons working against each other occupy the cylinder and define the combustion chamber. The rear piston attaches to the crankshaft via a conventional-looking connecting rod, while the front piston is attached to the crankshaft by way of a large, u-shaped rod running around both sides of the cylinder back to the crankshaft.
In operation, the pistons pull away from each other during intake, drawing in the fuel/air mixture. They then move against each other during the compression stroke, squeezing the fuel/air mixture between them. On combustion, the rear piston pushes the crankshaft while the front piston pulls on the crankshaft. This push/pull effectively cancels out any crankshaft thrust, resulting in a remarkably smooth-running engine.
The engine also features a steam-tight jacketed cylinder. Once the engine reaches operating temperature, water in the jacket turns to steam, which is then introduced into the intake flow. Theoretically, this cools the charge, inhibiting pre-ignition and also helps keep the cylinder free of carbon. Additionally, the Lightning engine was gearless. A three-sided lobe, acted upon by a timed pick, spins. When a lobe is up, the exhaust pushrod actuates the exhaust valve, and when the mechanism is flat, the pushrod misses its mark. The belt-driven flyball governor latches the timing mechanism so a lobe is up to lock the exhaust valve open during overrun. This action simultaneously locks out the igniter.
A decidedly rare breed, there are few surviving Lightning engines (it's thought no more than 10 still survive). Considering their high cost when they were new, it's not too surprising we don't see more of these on the show circuit.
About 1905, for instance, a 6 HP Lightning listed for $600. And if you wanted that engine as a portable, you added another $300. When we remember there were competing engines available for less than half that price, it's clear the Lightning was a pricey proposition.
Engine collector Tommy Turner, Magnolia, Ky., is the lucky owner of the engine featured here, a circa-1905 6 HP, shop no. 878. Tommy, a circuit court judge, has been collecting engines since he was 13, and the Lightning is one he's wanted for some time. Before this engine came along in 2003, Tommy had already managed to find two Lightning engines, a 4 HP he describes as a 'parts' engine and a 15 HP he's actively restoring.
Although the history of Tommy's 6 HP engine is a bit cloudy, it appears to have originally been sold to a farmer in Virginia. It then surfaced in the mid-1960s, when engine collector Dan Powers acquired it. Dan restored the engine soon after, and it stayed in his collection until it was bought by Art Biagi Jr. in 2000. Art, who first saw - and tried to buy - the engine in the late 1970s, committed the Lightning to a complete restoration before it passed into Tommy hands.
In addition to a complete cosmetic restoration, Art had the wheel hubs bored and bronze bushings pressed to give the axles a good fit. The engine is remarkably original, right down to the battery box, although the top of the box has been replaced.
Tommy Turner starts his 6 HP Lightning to the delight of onlookers at the 2004 engine show in Portland, Ind. A crowd magically appeared every time Tommy got ready to fire the engine, which he stationed next to the Stationary Engine List group.
Tommy first showed the engine this year at his local show, the Lincolnland Antique Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Show, in Hodgenville, Ky. His next outing with the engine was the annual engine-fest at Portland, Ind., Aug. 25-29, where the engine constantly drew a crowd - whether sitting still or idling away.
Actually, thanks to the engine's design, it's hard to tell when it's running. The opposed pistons so effectively balance the engine even sitting on a level, blacktop surface there's barely a hint of movement.
Details of the Lightning mixer as shown in a circa-1904 catalog; crankshaft for Lightning engine (note the three throws and the crank support, which was integral on the portables); cylinder for Lightning as shown in circa-1904 catalog. Although not shown in these cuts, Lightning engines had a ported exhaust in addition to a standard poppet-valve to ensure a cool-running engine.
Tommy says it runs easily, noting, 'If you don't flood it, it starts on one pull.' The biggest problem, Tommy says, is the igniter design. Twisting the igniter on its base effects engine timing. To facilitate this, the igniter base is slotted where it bolts to the engine. Unfortunately, this means whenever the igniter is removed to clean the contacts, the engine also has to be re-timed when the igniter is reinstalled. 'I can imagine at the turn of the century that would have been a problem,' Tommy says.
As to the engine's unique two-piston design, Tommy speculates it's probably not as efficient as a 'traditional' single-piston affair. Tommy notes the large bore of the 6 HP engine, which at 6-3/4 inches is more than 2 inches larger than similarly sized, contemporary engines. Plus, there's the question of extra friction generated from two pistons.
Whether its overall design represents simply gimmickry or engineering excellence - or perhaps a unique mixture of the two - there's no question the Kansas City Hay Press Lightning represented a novel solution in the pursuit of the perfect engine.
Contact engine enthusiast Tommy Turner at: 1174 Upton Road, Magnolia, KY 42748; Icjudge@scrtc.com