We recently heard from Sean Moir, librarian at the
Reynolds-Alberta Museum, who is searching for information on the
Ericsson Flame engine, as described in the following paragraph. A
patron of the Museum owns one of these engines and would like to
learn more about it. In the hope that one of our readers can help
Sean, we are reprinting here a short history of the flame engine
and biographical information on John Ericsson, supplied by E. H.
Bergman, 5212-51 Ave., Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada T9A 0V4. If you
happen to have additional information you think would be useful,
please share it with Sean Moir at Reynolds-Alberta Museum, P.O. Box
6360, Wetaskiwin, Alberta Canada T9A 2G1. His phone number is
800-661 -4726; fax 403-361-1239.
This is an original John Ericsson Flame Engine, made sometime
John Ericsson’s father worked on these engines from 1790 to
1810, but he never got one to run. His son John was very fascinated
by these engines all his life. In 1819 he succeeded in getting one
This engine has no valves or ports, no intake or exhaust of any
kind. It has leathers for piston rings. When it was built, there
were no oil wells, no electricity, no railways or roads, only wagon
This is the cleanest running piston engine ever made. These
engines became obsolete with the advent of the internal combustion
engine about the turn of the century.
I have done 10 years of research on these old engines, and I
have run into a few. The ones I have found all have the joined
connecting rods, and one bearing on the crank shaft. They all have
the American standard screw thread. (Standardized in 1864 but was
probably widely used a few years before that.) They have oil cups,
and grooves for leather belts.
The European screw thread was standardized in 1841, and was
probably used some years before that.
The screw thread on this engine does not fit any known standard,
and when it was built oil cups did not exist.
The air pump was probably used for a jeweler’s blow
This engine has been in our family since 1858 when my
grandfather purchased it at an estate sale; it looked just the same
as it does now, only it had a sheet metal, and cast iron stand. It
is one of man’s first faltering steps into the mechanical age.
I believe it is the oldest piston engine in existence today (other
This engine is in perfect running order.
NOTE: The stand is not antique, it can be taken apart, and the
bottom tubes removed from the engine. It can be packed in a small
suitcase, so it can be taken on a plane under the seat in front of
John Ericsson was born in Sweden in 1803, and had good schooling
for that time. All his spare time was spent on the Flame Engine. He
was in the Army Engineering Corps and was a Lieutenant a few
He built, or had some of these engines made in 1820-25, some
with 16 inch cylinders.
He moved to England in 1825, and took two large engines with
him. He intended to use them to pump water out of coal mines.
They worked all right when he used the soft wood in Sweden, but
when he used the hot coal fires in England they simply melted
While in England he got into ship building, and invented the
ship propeller that proved to be far superior to the paddle wheel.
Steam was widely used then, (invented by Watts in 1744).
In 1837 he sold a ship to Captain Stocton, U.S. Navy, who was so
impressed with its performance that he invited Ericsson to come to
the United States, so he moved to New York in 1838 where he worked
for the United States Navy for 40 years.
He designed scores of vessels for the United States Navy, among
them the Monitor, the world’s first turret battleship, that
defeated the south’s iron-clad Merrimac, in the Civil War in
He is credited with nearly 2000 inventions, among them a device
to measure sea depth from a moving ship.
In his later years, Ericsson studied solar energy; some of his
experiments are of some use today.
Anyone interested in these old engines can read a book in two
volumes, called The Life of John Ericsson, by U. C.
Church, published in 1890.
Ericsson died in 1889. The United States government sent his
remains back to Sweden in the most modern cruiser they had at that
time. There are statues of Ericsson in Philadelphia, New York,
Boston and Chicago.