The History of the B.D. Tillinghast Machine Shop

| January/February 2002

A rare Picture of B.D. Tillinghast and his employees in front of the machine shop, circa 1905. Tillinghast is the man wearing the Derby (third from left).

Historians tell us that in terms of the quality of light, whale oil was superior to petroleum-based lamp oil. However, petroleum-based lamp oil was much cheaper. After Drake drilled the first well, there was an oil boom in and around Oil City, Pa., driven by the huge demand for this new and cheaper lamp oil. Derricks mushroomed all over that part of Pennsylvania, but the drills for the well and pumps for the oil were almost always powered by a steam engine, which were bought by the thousands to operate these wells.

In 1882 the first commercial gas well came on line in Washington County, Pa., and oil was later discovered in the same area in 1885. Thousands of new gas and oil wells were drilled and operated using steam engines in and around the Washington County area during the 1880s-1890s, and by the turn of the century, the McDonald Oil Field in Washington County was the second largest oil field in the world.

Steam engines had two major drawbacks when used in the oil field, however. First, they posed a real fire hazard when the well came in. Oil gushing out from the ground was ignited sometimes by the fire in the boiler, and if this happened, the whole operation would burn to the ground. The second was much more important. After a while the well required pumping only part of a day. So with a steam engine, the boiler had to be lit, brought up to temperature, and then used to pump for only a while, which could be as short as a few hours. This was a time consuming and expensive method to pump crude.

When Otto's gas engine patent ran out, firms started to make oil field engines, engines that would not ignite a gusher and were relatively easy to start and shut down. Best yet, there was an easy and cheap supply of fuel at each of the wells. Natural gas - a byproduct of oil production - could be capped and used to fuel a gas engine.

There are many similarities between steam engines and oil field gas engines of that day. Both were about the same size, both had a crankshaft and piston, and both had a large cast iron base. In fact, it was possible to make a gas engine out of a steam engine by simply changing the 'top' of the engine. By adding a gas engine cylinder, some sort of carburetion and a governor, a steam engine could be converted into a gas engine, which could then run off of the waste natural gas that came with the crude oil. Several firms started making these conversions, which came to be known as half-breed engines. The Bessemer Gas Engine Company is generally considered to be the first to produce half-breed engines. Misters Fithian and Carruthers were the founders of Bessemer, but much of the credit for using gas engines in the oil fields has to go to Fithian. Although steam engines can start under load, gas engines cannot. The clutch was therefore necessary to adopt gas engines for this kind of work, and Fithian invented the clutch used on oil field engines, thus allowing them to be substituted for steam engines. However, many firms produced oil field engines, and among these was the Tillinghast Machine Shop.