The Runaway Engine


| March/April 1990



Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine

Route 2, Box 129 Troy, Tennessee 38260.

My father, Schaffer Livingston, stood in the engine room and surveyed the destruction around him. The magnificent Fairbanks-Morse 50 HP engine stood tilted at a crazy angle, its concrete foundation shattered as if by a giant jackhammer. Of the eight foot flywheel, there was only the hub with the stubs of spokes remaining. Daylight streamed through the roof and one outside wall, mute testimony as to where the missing wheel rim had gone. Broken pipes and fittings decorated the chaotic scene, 'I guess the governor failed and she just ran away!' said the owner of the cotton gin. In any case, whatever had happened had been fatal for the engine and Fairbanks-Morse had sent my father to try and determine the cause. 'Perhaps the governor did fail, but before we condemn the engine, let's look at all the facts,' said Dad. 'Tell me everything you know about what happened prior to the accident.' With the help of the owner and gin operator he pieced together the following sad tale.

The year was 1927 and with the ginning season almost at hand in the Mississippi Delta, the gin owner still had not found an engineer to replace the man who had operated the big engine the past year. His frantic pleas for help were rewarded by the arrival of a man who stated that he had had several years experience with gasoline and oil engines. Never had he operated a Fairbanks 2 cycle engine, but 'an engine was an engine,' and if you could operate one you should be able to figure out how to make any other kind of run. He was hired on the spot and told to make the engine ready as cotton would be arriving to be ginned any day.

The next morning the 'engineer' began to check over the engine in preparation for firing it up. The Man-zel lubricator was filled with oil and nine months accumulation of dust and cobwebs were wiped off. In order to check the crankcase oil, he found that he had to remove an inspection door as he had been unable to locate the dipstick. Apparently the previous engineer had drained the crankcase at the end of ginning season since no oil could be seen except in pockets at each end. Oil was obtained and poured through the inspection door to the proper level. The inspection door was replaced and tightened down, fuel tank turned on and gasoline placed in the tank of the air compressor engine.

The 'engineer' gave the little Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine a whirl and it sprang to life pulling the compressor, or as it was known in the Delta, 'the air monkey'. The air was needed to spin the 50 HP engine to start it

The 'engineer' gave the little Fairbanks-Morse 'Z' engine a whirl and it sprang to life pulling the compressor, or as it was known in the Delta, 'the air monkey'. The air was needed to spin the 50 HP engine to start it. The gasoline blowtorch on the cylinder head was lit and its flame directed at the exposed end of the 'hot plug.' While the air pressure was building up and the plug getting hot, a long steel bar was inserted into a hole in the massive flywheel. The wheel was turned or 'barred' into starting position so that when the air was turned into the cylinder, the engine would turn in the proper direction to start. Now, with air up, the hot plugs good and red and fuel in the injector, he pulled the starting lever to spin the engine. The lever was returned to 'run' and the engine coughed to life with a series of ear splitting pops. The heavy flywheel began to accelerate and the engine came up to speed.