This month we continue reprinting a series that first appeared
in GEM in the March-April 1969 issue. Over the coming months,
we will retrace engine history as presented by Carleton M. Mull.
This segment originally appeared in the September/October 1969
The first issues of this history of the gas engine described the
events and told of the men who built the first steam engines. The
successful development of these machines assisted man in the
performance of labor in the early manufacturing and mining era.
From the designs of the steam engine, the gas engine inventors took
the mechanical pattern to experiment with a different type of prime
mover. They worked with different kinds of fuel to find other
sources of energy. This era extended from about 1700 to the early
part of 1800.
By 1875, the general trend in design of the two types of gas
engines were patented. Many mechanical modifications of the basic
principles of the engines were submitted to the patent office, both
here and in Europe.
Examination of engine details covered by patents in the United
States during the last quarter of the 19th century is an
interesting study to those who would like to see designers’
ideas in the progress of the development of the gasoline
The main features of the stationary engines were pretty much
alike; however, the accessories such as carburation, cooling
arrangements, lubrication systems, ignition and various types of
pulleys and drives were still in the experimental stages.
Mixing valves for fuel intake were used on the slow speed
engines and are still common on this type of engine of the present
manufacturers. Such trade names as Lunkenheimer, General Valve Co.,
Aldrich and the Hay Co., built these valves for mixing the gasoline
and air in the proper proportions.
High speed engines used carburetors which had the advantage of
float type gasoline supply control. Well known manufacturers were
Schebler, Kingston, Renault, Stromberg, Breeze, Aldrich and Zenith.
Many engine manufacturers built their own mixing valves and some
were of the type arranged to use two kinds of liquid fuel, such as
gasoline and kerosene. Engines would be started on gasoline from a
small auxiliary fuel reservoir. As soon as the engine was warmed
up, two needle valves would allow the operator to close down the
gasoline supply and open up the kerosene valve for continuous
operation on the cheaper fuel.
Mention has been made of the first method used to produce
ignition in the gas engines. This type was commonly obtained by
some device of gas jet or bunsen burner attached to the cylinder
head. The burner was kept going during the operation of the engine
and timed by a valve so the flame would enter the combustion
Later development of this method of ignition used a flame to
heat a porcelain or nickel alloy tube that was installed in the
head of the engine, permitting the compressed fuel charge to come
in contact with the hot tube creating the explosion. In some
engines where the compression was high enough, the gas flame would
be turned off after the engine was started and the tube would
maintain sufficient heat to continue to operate the engine.
Wet cell electric batteries furnished current for the earliest
electrical ignition. This type of glass jar battery was
satisfactory for engines on a fixed foundation, but they were not
suitable for automotive application. A good battery like the
Edison, in a low tension system with an induction coil and with a
make and break igniter, constituted a dependable ignition system
for stationary engines.
The wet cell with the carbon electrodes and caustic soda
solution was replaced by the dry cell batteries in the early 1900s.
These round cylindrical dry batteries rated at 2 volts, required
little maintenance and were easily adaptable to both stationary and
Low tension generators and magnetos rated at 6 and 8 volts were
soon to be available. The Apple dynamo with a friction clutch
governor operated at variable speeds with a constant voltage
output. This popular little generator was manufactured by the
Dayton Electric Manufacturing Co. of Dayton, Ohio.
Other horseshoe magnet type generators and magnetos were on the
market at the start of the century which offered more dependable
ignition systems. Some of the manufacturers were the Robert Bosch
Co., the Splitdorf Electric Co., the Sumter Electrical Co., the
Webster Magneto and the Wizard.
The next development of better and more dependable ignition
systems was the event of the high tension spark coil and high
tension magneto. With this more modern system was the introduction
of the ‘electric ignition plugs’ or ‘spark plugs’as
the spark plug of today was first named. The high tension magneto
with a field and wound rotor, created a flow of current which
passed through the condenser built in the magneto and then to a
distributor for timing to the spark plugs.
A combination of a battery and magneto system on an engine made
starting easy. The engine could be started on the battery system
and then switched over to the generator for continuous
Many versions of the make and break igniters were in use before
spark plugs. These circuit breakers were made with a set of
electrical contacts in the combustion space. The early igniters of
this method were built into the cylinder head. Some had one
rotating electrode that made a wiping contact with the other
electrode. The unit type make and break igniter was a big
improvement from a service standpoint. The entire unit could be
removed from the engine to be replaced by a new unit, or to have
the contact points renewed.
Electric ignition plugs, or sparking plugs, as they were known
when they were first used, were made in a number of types from the
more or less conventional spark plug to the complicated design with
a coil and timing mechanism built in the magnetic igniter. These
looked like a very large spark plug and could only be installed
when there was ample space around the spark plug area of the
engine. The Bosch Magneto Co. built the magnetic igniter.
The Duryea automobile manufacturers built another type known as
the ‘Exploder.’ In this plug, the timer on the engine
caused the magnetic coil in the Exploder to break the circuit,
allowing the full flow of current to create a strong spark across
the points of the plug.