The History of the Electro-Magnetic Engine

| July/August 2000

Electro-magnetic engine

1081 Wigren Road Frewsburg, New York 14738

This is the story of the rise and fall of the little known electro-magnetic engine. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, many interesting and little understood electrical experiments were conducted both here and abroad that eventually led to the discovery of the electric motor. In 1800, for instance, Volta invented an early form of a battery that greatly enhanced electrical experiments that previously relied on a form of capacitance (leyden jars), for electrical energy. In 1820, Oersted discovered by accident that electricity through a wire would deflect the needle of a compass and concluded that some form of magnetism was present. In 1831, Faraday discovered the magnetic field and hence the effect of an electrified coil on steel and on a permanent magnet and vice versa. Faraday's experiments and discoveries led to many useful inventions, including the multipolar motor in 1838 by Jacobi, the telegraph in 1840 by Wheetstone and Morse, the dynamo in 1871 by Gramme, and the telephone in 1876 by Bell to mention a few. But, in 1845, one industrious entrepreneur by the name of Bourbouze, wanted to capitalize on the electric coil 'solenoid effect' in a grand manner. He envisioned solenoid driven crankshaft engines powered by rooms full of batteries,* as an alternative to the then current steam power. So, in a fashion similar to the later 'halfbreed,' Bourbouze removed the cylinder, piston and valve system from a steam engine and replaced them with a large electric coil, a plunger, a switch arrangement for timing. Well-yes, the engine worked, but there wasn't enough sulfuric acid and zinc available in quantity for the batteries to meet the need and to compete with the low cost, readily available coal for steam engines. So, like many other early ideas and inventions, the electro-magnetic engine was short lived. Later, the term electromagnetic engine was changed to electric motor. Coincidentally, the efficiency of the early steam engine and the electro-magnetic engine were about the same at 20-25%, as compared to the later well-developed D.C. motor at 95%, and the A.C. Motor at 89%.

The photograph is of my re-creation of Bourbouze's electro-magnetic engine based on a well-aged and cannibalized Anderson engine. The engine specs are as follows:


3000 lb.






Steel (110 lb.)

Plunger rod

Brass (to prevent magnetism from reaching the cross-head)


Steel with brass ends + 500' of #4 copper wire (200 lb.)


24 volts D.C.


125 RPM

Ampere turns

68250@24 volts

Max. volts


Plunger power

60 lb. push for each 6 volts

This engine, along with several buildings and a field full of other engines, plus the recently restored large Miller engine, can be seen operating at the spring (June) and fall (October) shows at the Coolspring Power Museum, Coolsprings, Pennsylvania.

Additionally, I repair and collect old D.C. motors and generators. If you desire info or other, write to me at the address above, or telephone: (716) 569-3454. E-mail

*Large quantities of batteries for electrical applications were common in the 1800s, but prior to Gramme's dynamo in 1871, the primary means of recharging a battery was to replace the weak sulfuric acid with new acid. Interestingly, acid replacement was not the major cost of battery maintenance, it was the rapid use of zinc electrodes.