The Runaway Engine

By Staff
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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

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

Now the trouble started as the speed continued to build up. Our
‘engineer’ became a little concerned as the speed seemed to
show no sign of stabilizing and continued to increase. Keeping his
cool, he shut off the fuel supply. Instead of slowing and stopping,
the big Fairbanks continued its suicidal acceleration. Something
was definitely wrong! The engine was now a thing gone mad,
vibrating and roaring at the top of its voice. The
‘engineer’ took one look at the crumbling foundation and
deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, took to his
heels for the nearest exit. He left none too soon, for the worst
was yet to come! The huge flywheel could stand the stress no longer
and came apart. One piece went out through the roof leaving a
jagged hole, another sailed through the outside wall and mowed a
300 foot long swath through a late corn field, a third chunk
cruised into the gin machinery and effectively turned it into junk.
The engine finally came to a halt tilted on its shattered

A frantic call to the New Orleans office of Fairbanks-Morse
resulted in my father heading to the gin on the first available
train. He had been Supervisor of Installation for several years and
had installed the big engines from the deep south to the upper
peninsula of Michigan. He checked the sad remains and deduced the
reason for the untimely demise of the big diesel. There was nothing
mechanically wrong with the engine or its governor. If you
haven’t figured out what happened by now, perhaps it will be
well to remember that this was a 2 cycle engine. There should have
been no oil in the crank case except for that in the reservoirs at
each end. The oil was carried in small amounts by centrifugal force
from these reservoirs to the rod bearings. The oil that had been
incorrectly added to the crank-case was splashed about by the
connecting rod and drawn up through the bypass port into the
cylinder where it was burned as fuel. The faster the engine ran,
the more the oil was splashed about and the more was carried up to
be burned. The engine ran faster, splashed even more oil and
accelerated until cast iron and concrete could stand no more.

I am sure that this was not the only early engine that was
destroyed by a lack of knowledge on the part of the operator. We
still have the problem with us today. I personally saw a 6 HP
Economy being operated at a show by a man who did not even know
that it was supposed to be a hit and miss engine! The governor was
not latching up and the engine was continuing to accelerate when a
friend and I intervened and shut off the fuel. Always make sure
that you thoroughly understand the operation of your engines before
you run them.

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