The Clarke Gas Engine Company


| March/April 2002



Clarke Gas Engine

In 1898 brothers Clarence Clear Clarke and John Norris Clarke founded the Clarke Gas Engine Company in Evansville, Ind. Their father, John Norris Clarke Sr., was an Irish blacksmith who owned and worked in several blacksmith shops in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the brothers had experience gained working in railroad repair shops. With this background it was natural that they became machinists and wood workers. The building they chose to house their new business had previously been a grocery store. Located at the confluence of Canal St., Morton St., and Walnut St., their new business had the somewhat clumsy address of 1503-1505-1507 Canal St.

Some time around 1905 they built a foundry of poured concrete behind the existing wooden shop buildings. They equipped the foundry with a cupola approximately 48-inch in diameter for melting iron, and they also had four small, bronze furnaces. Engine blocks, heads, flywheels and crankshafts were cast of iron, while an almost infinite variety of marine propellers were cast of brass and bronze for use by the Clarkes in their own finished products and for sale to other boat builders. The brothers were evidently fine mechanics, with John concentrating on pattern making and boat building, while Clarence was the firm's machinist.

The shop itself was a two-story wood-framed building. Castings from the foundry were machined in the downstairs machine shop, which occupied the front half of the first floor. The Clarkes outfitted the machine shop with a wide variety of lathes, drill presses and other tools for the making of engines, all powered by overhead line shafts and flat leather belts. A large single-cylinder, hopper-cooled, hit-and-miss Clarke gas engine with double 36-inch flywheels, fueled by city gas, powered the entire shop.

The photo shows a later-style Type A single-cylinder, overhead valve Clarke marine engine, while the photo on the facing page is an early twin-cylinder, flathead Clarke with spoked flywheel instead of the solid flywheel common to the later engines. The photos shown are believed to have been taken sometime in the early 1920s. It is presumed that overhead valve and flathead engines were, at least for a short while, produced simultaneously.

This was a well-equipped shop, one of the lathes large enough to machine a side-wheeler steamboat crankshaft. John Clarke's son, Beresford, remembers as a small boy getting to see how far a continuous chip from a steam boat crankshaft could be stretched, and was delighted when he got the end outside the building and into the street before it broke. He remembers the lathe operator walking back and forth the length of the lathe on wooden duckboards as he applied oil from a large oil can to the lathe tool.

Marine engines were by far the most common products the Clarkes manufactured. Their engines were all of four-cycle design, as the brothers believed that large displacement, low compression and relatively low-speed engines were more reliable than the two-cycle marine engines that were common for the day. The Clarkes did build an experimental two-cycle, unique in featuring forward and reverse ports that could be selected by the position of the timing lever. The engine was a marvel for a few days, going from forward to reverse without stopping, and it was considered for use in a boat. One too many reverses, however, caused it to shed many of its parts. It was deemed impractical and the engine was abandoned.