What is an Oil Field Engine?

By Staff
article image
courtesy of Gas Engine Magazine Staff
The Coolspring Power Museum’s Either combination engine, designed to operate on either gas or steam.

Just what IS an oil field engine? The simplest answer is, any engine used in the oil fields. Makes sense, of course, and when we talk about oil field engines, I think a certain picture comes to mind; something a bit crude and rugged, and of course covered with oil. In this article, I would like to take you on a photo journey of my thoughts on the subject.

Black and white photo of the Ball engine.

Before we start, I would like to narrow our focus to gas engines. So how do we usually classify them? “Oil field” is certainly one class. Then there are industrial engines, farm engines, electric generating engines, machine shop engines, and many other types.

How does the oil field engine differ?

Defining the oil field engine

As I’ve suggested, the oil field engine is usually somewhat crude and heavy, and was usually manufactured for severe duty and limited maintenance. Made to quickly fill the need of the great oil boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were mostly of a very simple design. Note the Ball engine seen in Photo 1. This engine was produced by the Butler Engine and Foundry Co. of Butler, Pennsylvania, and is of the 2-stroke design.

Man in a red t-shirt and blue jeans standing behind a large cast iron engine…

Simplicity itself! It has a pleasant-but-heavy design that facilitates moving it from place to place. Often, the small oil producer had only a hammer, chisel, and monkey wrench to do maintenance. Repair and adjustment had to be self explanatory. Photo 2 shows Coolspring Museum volunteer Jonah Close working on another 2-cycle oil field engine, an Etna, built in Butler, Pennsylvania. It now runs beautifully.

A medium cast iron engine on display at the Cools Springs museum.

So who came up with the first oil field gas engine? Records show that Joseph Reid, a Scottish immigrant, designed and patented an unusual gas engine. It was the very first aimed directly at the oil producer. That was in 1894, and his invention changed the way oil was pumped. Produced in Oil City, Pennsylvania, it was manufactured in the heart of the oil patch. It was extremely successful, and the firm survived until about 1948. A fine example is seen in Photo 3.

Gas engine fever quickly spread, and other makers were soon selling their own versions. Of course, each one was deemed the finest built and competition was intense. The market weeded out the poorer ones, while a few builders prospered into industrial giants. Designs varied, but they all kept the qualities of being simple and rugged — and ready for a hard life. As they would be running day and night with little attention, they had to be durable.

Another Large cast iron, with a rusty front end and exhaust pipe. .
A large blue/green engine with black paint on part of the flywheel

With the proliferation of 4-stroke design, some builders turned to that principle, and while it certainly had its advantages, the 4-stroke never eclipsed the 2-stroke for its utter simplicity. Pattin Brothers, of Marietta, Ohio, made several successful models of 4-stroke engines, as exemplified by the 25hp beauty depicted by Photo 4. It was of pleasant lines, hit-and-miss governed, and featured both hot tube and high-tension ignition. Simple and rugged, it was quite successful. Another fine example is the Swan engine, built by John Swan of Lima, Ohio. It featured a side shaft, a vertical throttling governor, and a cross head. Although very pleasing in appearance, it was not so successful. Perhaps it was just too complicated for the oil producer? Coolspring’s Swan engine is seen in Photo 5.

Black and cream photo of an old steam engine.

Other builders made a gas engine cylinder that could be adapted to a steam engine frame. When a producer wished to retire a steam engine and avoid the problems with an ailing boiler, one could choose this route. Dr. Edward Fithian of Portersville, Pennsylvania, pioneered this idea in 1898, and another world of engines evolved.

Photo 7: A compressor cylinder on a steam engine frame surrounded by trees.

Literally hundreds of combinations were possible utilizing various steam engine frames and gas engine cylinders. This type was affectionately called the “half breed” engine. Photo 6 shows a Davis cylinder attached to an Oil City steam engine frame. It was very successful. The “half breed” concept was so popular that some makers placed their compressor cylinders on steam engine frames, as seen in Photo 7.

A large old cast iron engine.

A unique variant of these engines were combination engines, which could operate on either gas or steam. Gas could be used for everyday pumping, while steam, more powerful and making for an easily reversible engine, could be used for servicing the well. Most of these neat machines were built in the Washington, Pennsylvania, area. They did not stray far from home in their use, answering a particular need there. Photo 8 shows the museum’s Either engine, built by B.D. Northrup of Washington, Pennsylvania. It features his convertible cylinder mounted on a sturdy Ajax steam engine frame. Oil patch ingenuity!

A small deep blue/green engine with black paint on part of the fly wheel.

I think we are getting an idea of what oil field engines are, which is a really diverse breed of their own. Making a good thing even better, some builders combined their engine with what was needed to operate, all in one piece. Want to pump a group of wells by the “rod line” method and don’t want to buy and install a separate engine and eccentric pumping power? Pattin Brothers had the answer with a neat combination engine and pumping power all in one piece (Photo 9). Several other makers produced similar combination units that were easy to install.

Photo 10:This Blaisdell oil field engine in the museum’s Windy City display has huge, 7-foot…

What about the lease-owner who had a group of steam engines already on the wells, but was plagued with a failing boiler? The Blaisdell Machinery Co. of Bradford, Pennsylvania, had the answer with this nifty 65hp unit that combined a large gas engine and air compressor into one unit. The piston assembly in the single-cylinder was double-acting, yielding a gas engine on the end of the cylinder facing the cylinder head and an air compressor on the end of the cylinder facing the flywheels. Unique and highly successful, the Blaisdell produced compressed air that could easily operate the steam engines. Seen in Photo 10 is the museum’s Blaisdell, sporting huge, 7-foot-diameter flywheels! It operates in our Windy City display and powers a steam engine, as it did originally. Amazingly, Blaisdell evolved into the company that makes Zippo lighters.

A large red engine on slats.

A few makers opted to make a machine to fit various needs. Jacobson of Warren, Pennsylvania, was one of those. Although their engines were mainly for the oil field, they could also serve farm uses as well as industrial uses. This cute little 4hp model, (Photo 11) was happily at home most anywhere. It was hopper-cooled, affording it portability, and could use either gasoline or natural gas as fuel. They had a side shaft and hit-and-miss governing, making them a very pleasing design. This one resides at the museum.

Different engines

So that’s the oil field engine story in a nutshell, and we now have a great mental picture of them. So how did they differ from industrial engines? Industrial engines were used in factories, machine shops, water pumping applications, print shops, and the like. The industrial engine was usually well-finished and had an exceptional appearance.

Res and black front view of an old engine.

Commercial concerns often put their expensive engine where customers could watch in awe over the opulence of the owner. It was just good advertising, and the makers of engines knew this. Brass was polished and surfaces were machined for the ambience the well-finished engine created. Photo 12 shows the museum’s gorgeous New Era engine. Built in Dayton, Ohio, this beauty spent its life pumping water in a small municipal water works.

Large restored cast iron engine on display in the Cool Springs Museum.

Occasionally, a mill-quality engine would be retired and get a second life in the oil field. Such is true of the museum’s fine 16hp Backus engine (Photo 13). Beginning its life around the turn of the last century in a small grain mill in Sarver, Pennsylvania, it was sadly retired by the installation of an electric motor. Ahh, progress! But it was saved by an oil producer and lived a very productive second life.

An extremely huge red and silver engine with the owner in a black and white…

Photo 14 shows a fine example of a mill or industrial engine with a huge 50hp White & Middleton dwarfing its proud owner, Greg Johnson. White & Middleton built exceptionally well-finished engines for the discriminating buyer. What did it do? It pumped oil!

So we know what an oil field engine is: It’s rugged, simple, greasy, and dependable. We love them, but we love the shiny sophisticated industrial engines, as well. They all have their place and use. Come see these oil field engines and other engines at the museum. You will enjoy the experience!

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