Saving An Historic Otto

Hidden for over 40 Years/ a Rare Otto is on Regular View at Rough and Tumble in Kinzers, Pennsylvania

| July/August 2003

Otto gas engine

This story starts on the outskirts of Boston in the 1950s. Major construction of the infamous Route 128 (now I-95) was underway, and in its path stood the historic laboratory and workshop of Francis Blake, an inventor and physicist who, among other things, patented the carbon microphone used by Bell Telephone Co. The workshop, dating from the 1870s, had been closed up in the early 1900s when Blake passed away. It had remained untouched all that time, as if waiting for him to return and fire up the Otto gas engine that sat in the corner, once again setting the belts in motion and the line shafts rumbling.

With bulldozers drawing ever closer it was time for action. A New York engine collector, with plans to restore the Otto, gathered up the engine and all the contents of the workshop, removing them to a storage building in New York state. Remarkably, before anything was disturbed, the workshop was photographed just as it had appeared in Blake's time.

The Otto Engine

Blake's Otto engine was manufactured around 1890, soon after Nicolaus August Otto in Germany made a major breakthrough in gas engine design with his invention of the compression ignition, four-cycle engine. Up to that time, gas engines were non-compressing, examples of which were the Lenoir (which resembled a double-acting steam engine with an efficiency in the 5 percent range), and the Otto and Langen vertical free-piston engine. The Otto and Langen used an explosive charge to move a piston to create a vacuum; the power stroke was developed by Facing page: Francis Blake's machine shop as it looked in the 1950s when Blake's 4 HP Otto was removed.

the atmospheric pressure then returning the piston. The piston connected to a rack and pinion, itself connected to an overrunning clutch and finally an output shaft. The clutch ran free on the rising stroke and engaged during the descending stroke, allowing power output. The four-cycle engine, however, made its power by first compressing its fuel/air charge, followed by the subsequent explosion and expansion of the charge in the cylinder. Initially, Otto took some ridicule over his engine, as there was a belief that each stroke should provide power, whereas he was 'wasting' three cycles and only deriving power on the fourth. Otto's belief in the four-cycle operation proved out, of course, going on to lay the foundation for the gas-powered, internal combustion engine.

Second Salvation

Forty years went by, and the well-meant act of saving Blake's historic equipment seemed to have been forgotten as the storage building it was housed in slowly deteriorated. The roof caved in, collapsing on top of Blake's equipment and exposing the contents of the shed to the elements, and vandalism.

In the early 1990s Nate Lillibridge and Fred Hendrickson, two New England engine enthusiasts who had heard about Blake's equipment, wanted to know what had happened to the Otto engine from Blake's workshop. They tracked it down, but what they found was a sorry sight. Most of the equipment had deteriorated and rusted amongst the rubble, but the Otto had survived sufficiently intact for Nate to consider saving it. This was, after all, an historically significant engine, and Nate, who has a legacy of saving unique engines and putting them on permanent display for everyone to enjoy, was confident he could breathe new life into the Otto. In 1992 it was recovered from the rubble and transported to Connecticut, where Nate solicited the help of John Rex to orchestrate the Otto's restoration.