Oil Field Engine News

Wright Brothers Engine


| October/November 2003



Combustion Engine

Some of the earliest developments of the internal combustion engine were driven by the idea of using natural gas, the byproduct of oil drilling, to fuel an engine. Half-breed steam engines (steam engines converted to gas) as developed by Edwin Fithian, founder of the Bessemer Gas Engine Co., were introduced in the very infancy of the development of gas engines. Forward-thinking men like Fithian, John Carruthers, Dugald Clerk, Nicolas Otto, Joseph Reid and others pressed engine science in the search for increased efficiencies and higher horsepower to provide the motive force necessary for the growth of the industrial world.

As an ever-increasing number of steam engines were either converted into or replaced by internal combustion engines, the high power demands of the oil and gas industry resulted in the manufacture of some of the largest gas engines ever built. Industrial and oil field engines were heavy, massive units designed to run for hours or days with unattended service. These engines generally ran at low speeds, and a 25 HP engine could easily weigh as much as 8,000 or 10,000 pounds. On the other hand, the development of the automobile was made possible by small, relatively light, multi-cylinder high-speed engines that were yet powerful enough to do the job. Many of the industrial and technological advancements in the last 100 years have depended on the advance of engine technology.

Another form of transportation made possible by the development of better internal combustion engines was the airplane, and Dec. 17 marks the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first flight of a powered aircraft. The Wright Brothers are credited with their development of the airplane and advancements in aerodynamics, but you never hear mention of the great engine that they and one other gentleman developed, an engine that made their flight possible.

While most everyone has heard of the Wright Brothers, do you know who Charles Taylor was? Wilbur and Orville Wright designed the one-of-a-kind engine with the help of their bicycle shop mechanic, Charles Taylor, who fabricated the engine in a matter of weeks working with simple tools, no blueprints and what was then exotic technology, including a crankcase made of cast aluminum.

1903 engine built by the Wright Brothers and Charles Taylor. This engine powered the Wright Brothers' first flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

In 1903 it was nearly impossible to find an engine manufacturer able to meet the Wrights' design requirements of an 8-10 HP engine weighing less than 200 pounds. Automotive engine manufacturers could come close, but could not meet the Wrights' specific needs. Nor would they be willing to set up tooling to produce the one or two engines the Wright Brothers needed for their experiments. At the time of the Wrights' first flight, few of their contemporaries were using gasoline powered internal combustion engines for flight experiments. While aviation pioneers such as Langley, Maxim and Ader used steam power in their designs, time has shown that the Wright Brothers' choice of a gas engine was the right one.