Readers' Engine Questions

| June/July 2002


A Brief Word

We always find it interesting to peruse through our old books and magazines. Of course, our major interest is in the development of the internal combustion engine, and it's amazing how quickly the engine developed subsequent to the Otto Silent of 1876. By 1900 the gas engine was being built by numerous companies in the U.S., and the numbers continued to swell up to about 1920, after which they declined steadily. Several reasons can be provided for this change.

First of all, the market was becoming saturated. Second, electric power was being widely used, especially in the cities. Third, the heavy cast iron engines of the past were being replaced with smaller, lightweight and sometimes air-cooled designs that weighed a fraction of their predecessors. They were easier to move about, they were adaptable to many portable applications and usually cost far less to buy.

With this background, it is fascinating that the internal combustion engine developed so quickly - in less than two decades from 1900, these engines had become well refinded. Several companies rose to the top of the pot. Fairbanks-Morse built more engines than anyone else, and following close behind was International Harvester. The Stover and Witte engines were among the major players, and all the others followed behind the industry leaders.

Fairbanks-Morse moved toward higher compression engines earlier than most of the industry and, in fact, using higher compression created ignition problems. It takes far more voltage (electrical pressure) to fire an arc through compressed air than at atmospheric pressure. The magnetos of the time simply weren't up to the task of higher compression, and eventually F-M designed and built their own magnetos capable of solving the problem. Meanwhile, during the 'teens and early 1920s, F-M used many different kinds of magnetos in order to find a satisfactory solution.

The famous Plugoscillator (built by Sumter) was a case in point. The company eventually retrofitted a great many engines with a new and more successful spark plug design.

Of all the gas engine builders, Fairbanks-Morse and International Harvester probably spent more on research and development than any of the others, perhaps more than all the rest of them combined. John Deere was a popular entrant in the 1920s with the introduction of their Type E engines in 1- HP, 3 HP and 6 HP sizes. This engine was immensely popular with farmers and remains as one of the most popular vintage engines today. Of course, the John Deere engines had the popular Waterloo Boy line as their immediate ancestor.