1911 50 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type RE

Mountaintop Treasure

| June / July 2008

Perched over a mile high in the San Gabriel Mountains and only a 25-mile drive from Pasadena, Calif., is the Mount Wilson Observatory. This historic site is home to many technical treasures of a bygone era including not only the finest telescopes of the time, but also the equipment needed to support them and the astronomers who used them. One of these pieces of equipment is a 1911 50 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type RE. This is a very special place in the history of astronomy and I am sure that a very high percentage of the 13 million or so people living within a 50-mile radius have no idea what a treasure it is, or what treasure is inside it.

A brief introduction 
George Ellery Hale, an astronomer primarily interested in the study of the sun, established the observatory in 1904. By the end of 1908, besides the instruments for studying the sun, there was a telescope with a mirror 60 inches in diameter, and in 1917 a 100-inch telescope was added. Both telescopes were the largest in the world when they were first used. Later, Hale was the guiding force leading to the development of the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar near San Diego.

Even though it is just a few miles from a large city, there was no paved road to the site until the 1930s. In the early years the only routes consisted of narrow winding trails about 4 feet wide that gained over 5,000 feet of elevation in just a few miles. All material was transported using either pack animals or small carts pulled by animals. As time progressed one of the trails was widened, allowing for the use of powered trucks. Because of the remote location, the observatory had to be self sufficient with regard to water, power and housing for the staff and such. That leads to the main subject of this tale – a 1911 50 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type “RE” engine.

My brother Ken worked at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for many years and let it be known around the lab that he was interested in antique gas engines. In the spring of 1994 another employee at the lab, who also worked with an educational program at Mt. Wilson, asked Ken if he was interested in taking a look at an old engine located there. Ken called me to see if I would like to go and it didn’t take long at all to set a date for us to meet at the observatory. We had no idea at that time that we were in for a delightful surprise.

With our host we walked down a narrow road past the “No Trespassing” sign and were led into a small building. We entered a small machine shop that included a lathe, drill press, small milling machine and power hacksaw, mostly powered by an overhead line shaft system. Seeing this would have been enough to make the trip worth the time and effort, but our host just kept on going through the shop, opened a door and led us into a room holding the real reason for our trip.

There in front of us was a large 2-cylinder vertical engine directly connected to a very large electric generator. We had a little time to poke around and try to digest just what we were looking at. Bear in mind that up to this time our experience with old engines consisted of our own 2 and 3 HP engines, and a little time with our club’s 15 HP Fairbanks-Morse Z. This thing in front of us seemed huge. It had a tag on it that said, “Fairbanks, Morse & Co., 50 HP, 300 RPM.” The flywheels were about 6 feet in diameter, the cylinder heads and valves practically at ceiling height, and brass plumbing was all over the place.