Gas Engine Magazine

Oil Field Engine News

By Staff

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

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.

The engine Taylor and the Wrights built was a horizontal
four-cylinder, four-cycle water-cooled design with magneto ignition
and cam-tripped igniters for each cylinder.

The Wrights, concerned that ‘slop’ in the propeller
drive chains and miss-fires of the engine would cause excessive
vibrations on the aircraft, installed a flywheel on one end of the
engine to smooth things out. The engine first ran on Feb. 12, 1903.
It produced 12 HP and powered the 1903 flyer on the first four
flights on Dec. 17 of that year. Still, the short flights made on
that day showed the aircraft was overweight and underpowered.

In the following years the Wrights developed better and more
powerful engine designs. The Wrights built a pontoon boat as a test
base on which they often tested their engine and propeller designs,
‘air-boating’ on the Miami River in Dayton, Ohio. The
Wrights eventually adopted a vertical four-cylinder design for
their popular Wright ‘B’ flyer, and 24 years after the
Wrights’ first flight Charles Lindbergh stunned the world by
flying non-stop – and solo – from New York to Paris in an airplane
powered by a single Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine. The astounding
thing is that only five years before no successful air-cooled
engine such as the J-5 even existed in the U.S, and until the birth
of the jet-age after WW II, all aircraft used piston engines.
Development in jet and rocket engine technology made possible the
manned flight to the moon.

Today there are experimental ‘engines’ so small they can
only be seen with the aid of a microscope, and it seems possible
that in the very near future an engine the size of a postage stamp
might power your cell phone. Considering what advancements in
engine technology have made possible, we should all have a better
appreciation of the old engines we lovingly work on and

As always, anyone interested in a free membership in the Oil
Field Engine Society please call, write or e-mail to the address

Contact the Oil Field Engine Society at: 1231
Banta’s Creek Road, Eaton, OH 45320-9701. On the Web at or e-mail at:

  • Published on Oct 1, 2003
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