Answers to Questions About Engines

Teachable Moments: Updated answers to frequently asked questions about engines at antique engine shows

| October/November 2011

In the June 1990 issue of Gas Engine Magazine, Hubert Motry submitted the article “Answers to Spectators’ Questions,” in which he offered concise answers to the most common questions about engines encountered by exhibitors at antique engine shows. The following is an updated version of that article by Kirk Unzelman and Mike Intlekofer of Bellevue, Wash., who have rewritten the answers to be more clear, removed some obsolete references and added a few more questions about engines that they often hear at antique engine shows.

Q. When did gasoline engines first come into use, and what period of time used the old single cylinder or “one-lunger” engines on display here?

A. Although experimented with for a century before this, gas engines were introduced as a potential source of power around 1880. By 1900 they had become very popular. During the period of time between 1900 and the late 1930s, there were approximately 2,000 companies advertising engines for sale, and gas engines were finding widespread use on farms and in industry. In addition, gas engines were competing with steam engines for tractive power (self-propelled vehicles) until about 1920, when gasoline engines took over. In the late 1920s, high speed, multiple cylinder, high compression, lightweight engines made the old single cylinder engines less desirable.

Q. What horsepower ratings were available in these old engines?

A. Most of the engine manufacturers featured a family of engines of various sizes. The most popular were 1-1/2 to 10 HP at a rated speed of about 450 RPM. However, many models producing 40 HP and more were built. During the 1920s, some manufacturers built multiple cylinder engines of more than 1,400 HP. A 2-1/2 HP engine weighed about 250 pounds. A 10 HP engine weighed about 1,800 pounds and had two flywheels 38 inches in diameter and weighing 400 pounds each! Large cylinder displacements were essential to develop reasonable horsepower at the low compression and low speeds that were used. Large flywheels were essential to provide power to the load during the non-productive exhaust, intake and compression strokes.

Q. Why were gasoline engines so popular when electric motors were available during most of this time?

A. Electric motors were available, but electricity to run the motors was not available in many areas. Not until the 1930s was electricity finally introduced to rural or lower population communities.

Q. What were these engines used for that made them so popular? 

A. Wherever a wheel turned or hand power was needed, someone would adapt an engine to do the work. Examples: Pump water, saw wood, grind feed, chop corn fodder, run an air compressor or forge blower, churn butter, separate cream, shell corn, generate electricity, wash clothes, elevate hay, auger grain, press cider, run a hay press, bind wheat, power a line shaft to operate a lathe, grinder or drill press, and many, many more.

Q. How many manufacturers of these old engines are still in business?

A. In the early 1900s, nearly every city had foundries, and at least one foundry would cast, machine and sell a family of gas engines. This is why there were 2,000 manufacturers. As always, technology and shipping improved, and less competitive makers were eliminated, leaving just a few major sources: Fairbanks-Morse, Hercules/Economy/Associated, John Deere, Stover, International Harvester, Sattley, Cushman and a few others. John Deere is the only one remaining as an independent company.

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