Oil Field Engine News

By Staff
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When I think of popular oil field engines, two engines come to
my mind; Reid and the venerable Bessemer. This month, I’d like
to present a short history of the founding of the Bessemer Gas
Engine Co.

Edwin J. Fithian, generally regarded as the founder of the
company, started his career as a medical doctor. Receiving his
medical degree in 1892, he established a practice in Portersville,
Pa., moving a year later to the nearby village of Harmony.

Several small oil producers were among Fithian’s patients,
and they often complained they would be forced out of business
because of the aging boilers and high maintenance steam systems
they had to contend with. ‘Being always of a mechanical term of
mind,’ as Fithian described himself, he wondered if the
escaping natural gas at oil wells couldn’t be used to power the
pumps.

Fithians interest prompted him to join forces with George
Willets and his brother, Reuben, in developing an internal
combustion engine. In 1897 he purchased the Willets’ interest
for $900, hired them to continue working for wages, then sold their
share to lumberman H. W. Bentle. After several months of
experimentation, a 10 HP engine was completed and tested.

Even though an oil well supply company turned down his engine,
Fithian lost no confidence in his product. He was impatient to move
toward manufacturing oil well pumping engines before someone else
captured his intended market. First, however he was forced to
repurchase the interest owned by Bentle, who was too discouraged to
further pursue the venture.

Searching for a new partner, Fithian contacted machine shop
operator John Carruthers, who was experimenting with a similar
engine in nearby Callery Junction, Pa. It was a fortunate choice.
Fithian was an idea man and Carruthers could turn ideas into
productive creations.

Analyzing the plight of oil well drillers, they decided most
could not afford to abandon their steam engines, inefficient as
they were, and purchase new gas engines. Fithian had pondered the
idea of replacing steam engine cylinders with cylinders that could
be powered by escaping gas. Carruthers liked the suggestion, but
such a changeover necessitated a friction clutch and there was no
such creature on the market. Not surprisingly, they decided to make
the clutch themselves.

In 1898 the Carruthers-Fithian Clutch Co. was formed. After
inspecting several possible locations, the partners agreed on the
small town of Grove City, where Fithian had attended college.
Fithian’s brother-in-law, Dr. L. B. Monroe, a Grove City
dentist, promoted a citizens fund drive that enticed the company
with the property of the abandoned J.C. Brandon’s Tile Works.
Carruthers supervised conversion of the building into a
manufacturing shop, while Fithian phased out his medical
practice.

The company’s original name has led to debate over which
came first, the cylinder or the clutch. And while the answer
isn’t known, the Carruthers-Fithian two-cycle gas cylinder and
friction clutch were sold in tandem. For $125, an oil producer
could remove a steam engine’s cylinder and replace it with a 10
HP gas cylinder/clutch combination. A 15 HP outfit cost $175.

Acceptance of what became known as the ‘half-breed’ was
so immediate the company was unable to meet the demands of its
first major customer, South Penn Oil Co. For three years South Penn
purchased every cylinder it could get from the fledgling company,
and even paid royalties to manufacture additional halfbreeds in its
own shop at Allegheny, placing them on more than 10,000
well-pumping units in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Meanwhile, the company itself took a natural step into gas
engine manufacturing. In need of a new company name, the partners
decided to capitalize on the prestige of a renowned steelmaking
process known as the Bessemer converter. In 1899 the Bessemer Gas
Engine Co. was incorporated, with the Carruthers-Fithian Clutch Co.
continuing for several years as a separate entity in name only.

Beginning with a two-cycle 5 HP natural gas engine, Bessemer
enlarged its line steadily. In 1900 its first enclosed-case engine
was introduced. The original factory expanded into a complex, and
they added the design and manufacture of vertical pumps, roller
pumping power equipment, an oil well pumping jack and a small
gas/kerosene engine, all with varying degrees of success. Some
products were developed, then abandoned when attention was drawn to
something more interesting. The direct-gas, engine-driven
compressor, pioneer of casing-head gasoline production, was a
success from its inception. On the other hand, a vertical gas
engine was brought to final development, then scrapped without a
single sale.

It appeared highly improbable that the two men who together
molded Bessemer’s configuration could exist as a team. Their
personalities seemed incompatible, yet they rarely argued and it
was well known that neither would tolerate an unkind word about the
other.

Employees often described Carruthers with the single word
‘tough.’ A stocky man of medium height with iron-gray hair
and mustache, the Bessemer president spent most of his time in the
factory shops. Work was a compulsion for him, and he could not
accept it being less than the same for everyone else.

Carruthers’s demands were balanced by an instinctive impulse
to assist employees. Walking through the shops, always dressed in a
light-colored suit employees secretly referred to as his ice cream
uniform, he would always pause to help replace a belt or hold a
tool.

Regarded as a mastermind of machinery, he held several patents
and his designs were found in all Bessemer products. But many of
those designs were never recorded on paper. It was not uncommon for
Carruthers to walk out into the plant, a piece of chalk in hand,
and sketch his ideas on the floor. Machinists followed the chalked
directions as the president supervised. Several developments in
engines were thus recorded only temporarily on the Bessemer machine
shop floor.

While Carruthers was occupied in the factory, Fithian headed
administrative activities in the office. An observer would have
been hard pressed to determine which of the two men was chief
executive officer, and neither of them worried about making such a
distinction. Tall and lean with a carriage that commanded respect,
employees held Fithian in awe. Mo one addressed him by any name
other than Dr. Fithian. Even behind his back he was referred to as
‘the doctor,’ although his medical practice was reduced to
personally handling all first aid services for employees.

Fithian’s inventiveness was reflected in his home, which
over a period of time became a self-contained estate. Water from
drilled wells was stored in a huge standpipe located in the woods,
maintaining a pressurized supply to the entire property, which
included a swimming pool and a greenhouse. A gas well supplied fuel
to heat buildings and run a generator that provided electricity.
The house itself featured brick construction with air-pocketed
walls giving the effect of air conditioning.

Fithian never appeared to waver from total control of his
dignity. The doctor could not abide drinking, smoking, or swearing.
He also opposed dancing and playing cards. Religion, although
extremely important to him, was not the sole basis for such
feelings. He was angered by seeing families go hungry while the
breadwinners drank, smoked and gambled. In addition, he carried the
influence of a strong prohibitionist father who had seen a close
friend nearly killed by a man in a drunken stupor. It was said that
Fithian hated alcoholics as a group, but was sympathetic to
individual drunks. He literally picked them out of gutters and
tried to set them straight.

Fithian’s imposing demeanor was seldom interpreted as
stuffiness. Voters elected him mayor, and he unsuccessfully ran for
both governor and the senate under the Prohibitionist party ticket.
It was characteristic that for his campaign he designed what many
people claimed to be the nation’s first motor home. Using the
elongated frame of a truck, candidate Fithian and Grove City
mechanic Ed Black constructed a special bus for the campaign trail.
The interior, designed by the doctor, featured cut velvet
upholstery, built-in storage cabinets, a Pullman seat, table,
icebox, lavatory, and pure silk window shades. The vehicle had a
rear platform resembling that of a railroad coach, from which he
spoke to voters across the state of Pennsylvania.

Bessemer Gas Engine Co. eventually merged with what today is
Cooper Industries, and many engines carry the name Cooper-Bessemer.
Cooper, a large, worldwide corporation, consists of the mergers of
many companies in America’s industrial history, such as
Superior Gas Engine Co., Ajax, Gardner-Denver, Lufkin, Crescent and
many others.

The contributions of Dr. Edwin J. Fithian and John Carruthers to
history are not as well known as those of the Wright brothers or
Henry Ford, but we who collect old oil field engines can appreciate
the genius of these men who built engines that have stood the test
of time. Special thanks to Cooper Industries for permission to
excerpt from Cooper Industries 1833-1983 by David N.
Keller, a history of the Cooper company.

Contact the Oil Field Engine Society at: 1231 Banta’s
Creek Rd., Eaton, OH 45320-9701, or e-mail at:
oilengine@voyager.net or visit us on-line at:
www.oilfieldengine.com

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