Oil Field Engine News

Looking Back: A Short History of Ajax Iron Works


| July/August 2003



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In 1877 businessman Lewis L Bliss joined his brother-in-law, Clifford H. Bagley, and two other businessmen, Clarence G. Harmon and George H. Gibbs, in organizing a company to manufacture steam-powered drilling engines in Corry, Pa. The growing oil industry in Pennsylvania, following the first oil well drilled in Titusville in 1859 would provide a ready market for their product. Named Harmon, Gibbs & Company, the group constructed a three-story building, and began production of 12 HP steam engines.

As oil wells grew deeper, the young company built larger engines, building a 150 HP engine after just a few years in business. In 1892 the company was incorporated as the Ajax Iron Works. The name Ajax, with reference to the Greek hero from Homer's Iliad, had been adapted for several years to one of the company's drilling engines. Corporation rights were granted to Ajax as 'machinists, founders and engine builders.'

Ajax business grew rapidly after the turn of the 20th century. An Ajax gas engine had already added to its line, the first having been produced in 1895. By 1911 more than 1,200 Ajax engines had been sold. In 1920 National Supply Company became exclusive oil field distributor of Ajax engines. At the same time, Ajax discontinued its gas engine, returning to an exclusive steam engine line. Some within the company opposed the move, believing the Ajax gas engine design compared favorably with that of competitors. However, it was felt the plant did not have sufficient capacity to continue manufacturing both gas and steam engines. Said one advocate of steam power, 'A steam engine will run forever. It just gets a little noisier and a little looser, but as long as you put the steam to her, she'll run.' Indeed, the first Ajax engine built in 1877 was going strong until 1968 when it was retired to a museum, still fully operable.

views of Goble Rogers' 115 HP Ajax Model DP-115. Goble's Ajax made its first outing at this year's Hillbilly Flywheelers Show in Irvine, Ky., April 25-27, 2003.

Surviving the Depression doldrums, when oil business had dwindled to a trickle, Ajax continued to develop new and better steam engines. When World War II engulfed the nation, low priorities for oil field drilling nearly created a shutdown at Ajax (the low priority was a consequence of oil producers assuring the government they had sufficient drilling to sustain the war effort). To keep the plant in operation the company searched for a product it could produce that would be vital to the war effort. This product was found in the form of a contract with the Maritime Commission to produce marine steam engines for use on costal vessels. Ranging from 400 to 3,000 HP, each engine required two railroad cars for disassembled shipment. For its contribution to the war effort Ajax received the U.S. Maritime 'M' pennant and Victory fleet flag on Sept. 23, 1944.

views of Goble Rogers' 115 HP Ajax Model DP-115. Goble's Ajax made its first outing at this year's Hillbilly Flywheelers Show in Irvine, Ky., April 25-27, 2003.