1909 5 HP Otto Special Electric

Wayne Grenning sold most of his collection to buy this gem of an engine.


| October/November 2008



1909 5 hp Otto

Wayne Grenning's 1909 5 HP Otto Special Electric Lighting engine.

Photo by Wayne Grenning

In late 1998, a local collector was thinning his collection and making room for future “treasures.”

One of the engines up for grabs was a 1909 5 HP Special Electric Otto. I had seen this engine years prior and immediately knew I needed it. At the time, I asked him to consider me should he ever choose to let it go. The years passed, and at opportune times I would politely remind him of my interest in the Otto.

More than a decade later, I had almost forgotten about the engine.

The deal

One evening, I received a phone call and the voice on the other end said, “The Otto is yours if you are still interested, but I will need an answer within 24 hours.” Well, to make a long story short, I knew what I had to do. We worked out an arrangement where I would have time to sell most of my collection to finance the purchase. The price was fair but at least five times more than I’ve ever paid for an engine. Even so, I never second guessed myself or regretted the decision that fateful evening. I knew in my heart a nicer, more original Otto would probably never cross my path again – this would be my chance.

The engine

Engine no. 10625 has had four owners since the day it left the Otto factory in Philadelphia. The second owner removed it from its original installation and enjoyed it in his collection for years. From talking with area collectors familiar with the engine, I learned that it was originally direct-coupled to a triplex water pump that supplied irrigation for the fairways at an elite country club in Delaware. It was used there for half a century until electric power finally made its service obsolete.

Although a great majority of Special Electric Lighting engines were used for direct- or belt-drive dynamo service, one would occasionally be assigned for water pumping service. In the case of lighting, consistent speed was the most important design consideration. Any speed fluctuation would cause inconsistent output from incandescent bulbs. Surprisingly, a hit-and-miss governor was used on this engine, an almost unheard of speed control for special electric service. It’s possible Otto didn’t see the payback with the time and effort needed to design a throttling governor system for such a small product line.