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October 2014

The Swan Story

By Paul Harvey

While searching for a topic for my October Flywheel article, my mind drifted to two of the museum's most unique engines, the Swan and the Lima.  Both were manufactured in Lima, Ohio, and share many interesting features; the connection has always been a mystery to me.  Now I have a topic and a quest to discover information!  I plunged into the depths of the internet and found bits and pieces here and there which made enough to complete the story.  With the newly gained knowledge, this will now be a two part article with Swan discussed in October and Lima in November.  I hope the reader finds this as fascinating to read as I did to write.  

Nelson Swan was a Swedish immigrant who married Esther Sander from Pennsylvania.  They moved to Shawnee in rural Allen County, Ohio.  Lima is the main town in Allen County, and here our story unfolds.  John W. Swan, born in 1860, was the second child of six in the family and grew up on a farm.  The 1870 U.S. Census lists John as "works on a farm."  He was only ten years old then.  He married Florence in 1894, and there is no record of any children to the couple.  At age 40, in 1900, we find him living in Lima and the manager of a machine company.  The 1903 Lima City Directory notes that he was general manager of the John W. Swan Company which was located at the South West Corner, C&E RR and Greenlawn Avenue.  His residence was 218 Nye Avenue, Lima, Ohio.  This was the time that he built the engines that bear his name.

In 1902, he patented a gas engine and a starting device for the engine and assigned the patents to the John W. Swan Co.  J.O. Hover was president and Swan was general manager.   The company changed its name to the Lima Gas Engine Company in 1905, and Swan was no longer associated with it.  His tenure as a gas engine designer and manufacturer only lasted about three or four years.  He is also credited with two oil well pump jack patents; one in 1900 and one in 1905.  One reference mentions that Swan, after leaving the gas engines, joined with a Mr. Owen and a Mr. Palmer to form the Lima Motor Car Company.  For a short time, the firm sold Peerless and Velie automobiles.  However, Swan's time in Lima was soon over as he decided to follow the sun and move west.

The 1910 U.S. Census lists John and Florence living in San Diego, California, where he was employed as the manager of an automotive store.  He then moved to Los Angeles where he became interested in carburetor design. He patented his first carburetor there, and his next patent was from San Francisco.  This one was designed "especially for Fords."  His last four carburetor and manifold patents were obtained  in the 1920s when he was living in Connecticut.

The Foundry, January 1913,  states that the Swan Carburetor Company was incorporated in San Francisco and specialized in exhaust and intake manifolds, as well as carburetors.  Swan was not mentioned as an officer.  The April 1919 issue of Engineering states that the firm was located at 540 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California.  A 1927 listing shows that it was located in Cleveland, Ohio, at that time.  There is no further mention of the Swan Carburetor Company.

The 1920  U.S. Census shows that the Swans were living in Fairfield, Connecticut, and John was employed as an engineer for the Yale and Towne Lock Shop.  His interest in carburetors and manifolds continued and his last four patents were obtained during this decade.  Ten varied patents are credited to this prolific designer and engineer.  Then another move and this time to the south.  The 1930 U.S. Census indicates that John and Florence were living in Sarasota, Florida.  Probably at a hotel, they were listed as "lodgers" along with 20 other names.  Now 70 years old, his occupation was listed as "engineer."  In 1936, the Sarasota City Directory states they lived at 398 Gulf Stream Ave., Apt 4, Sarasota, Florida.  John passed away in 1938 and was buried in Bradenton, Florida.  So ended the life but not the legacy of this most interesting individual.

Photo 1 is John Swan's first gas engine patent, 750,318, applied for in 1902 and granted in 1904.  It is his "starting device" which is a compression release with a novel return.  By turning a knob on the exhaust cam cluster, a finger or cam is advanced into play opposite the exhaust cam.  This additional cam "bumps" the exhaust valve open on the compression stroke to relieve some pressure, hence making starting easier.  As the engine picks up speed, the knob is held by hand, and the starting cam recedes out of play by a screw thread on the exhaust cam.  The museum's Swan engine does not have this feature but the Lima does.  His second gas engine patent, Photo 2, number 771,028, shows a very unique device for removing all the exhaust gases from the cylinder.  The exhaust from the valve communicates with a space behind the piston and discharges into a chamber in the bed plate under the cross head.  In his patent, the rear of the cylinder is closed with a stuffing box, and as the piston moves forward, a vacuum is created which helps clear the cylinder of burnt gases.  Final exhaust is from the bed plate.  It does not appear that this would have been very successful, but the museum's Swan engine does have vestiges of the device evident.   

Swan's second carburetor patent, number 1,260,594, was applied for in 1904 and granted in 1918, when he was living in San Francisco. It is shown in Photo 3.  He claimed improved float and needle valve design.  Horseless Age, July 28, 1915, shows a photo of this carburetor, noted in Photo 4.  This is the carburetor that he built for Fords, claiming it was superior to the original equipment.  Some of his carburetors still exist.

John Wilcox and I made a snowy venture into the oil fields of  western Ohio and eastern Indiana in the winter of 1975 in search of goodies.  He mentioned a Swan engine; I had not even heard of one.  So we headed for Pennville, Indiana, and a certain farm where he remembered one.  The farmer greeted us and told us to go take a look.  Evening was approaching as we trudged through two foot snow drifts way out into the cornfield.   Despite the cold wind, we found the Swan;  the power house had burnt down around the engine and it was badly weathered.  Many small parts were missing.  Refer to Photo 5.  But it was a Swan and I made an agreement with the farmer to be back the next summer to get it.

Next summer, my wife, Marilyn, and I made the journey to retrieve the engine.  Photo 6 shows Marilyn and I starting the disassembly of the outboard bearing and clutch.  Unfortunately, due to weight, we were forced to leave these items behind.  Photo 7 shows the engine ready to pull up the planks onto the trailer with the hand come-along.  This is the way I moved engines in the early days!   Photo 8  depicts a job well done.  As I make one last check of the load and trailer, Photo 9, I wondered a bit about the Scout and the big load.  But the trip home was safe and uneventful and now the Swan is in Coolspring.

The Swan sat outside at home for many years, just being a good conversation piece, before being restored and placed into operation.  Presently, it resides in the Expo Building and is a great runner.  See Photo 10.  It is 25 horsepower and throttle governed.  Ignition is hot tube and both the intake and exhaust valves are power operated.  The governor controls a butterfly valve in the mixer. The cylinder detail is seen in Photo 11.  Part of Swan's patent is evident in Photo 12.  Note the small opening in the frame for the piston rod which is where the stuffing box would have been located.  The area under the crosshead is the enclosed expansion chamber with the opening to the right for the exhaust.  Photo 13 is a detail of the head and valve chests.  It sports the common western Ohio "T" head design, having the intake chest to the right and the exhaust to the left.  These valves are vertical; the Lima uses horizontal valves. The John W. Swan Co. name is clearly evident with the serial number of 151.  We date this engine circa 1902.

Photo 14 shows a 5 horsepower Swan engine, the only other one in existence to my knowledge, as displayed in the Susong Building years ago.  It has some significant differences from the 25 horsepower engine.  Note the bored, over and under, crosshead and the in-line valve placement.  Although the valves are vertical, this is a departure from the "T" head design shown in the patent. The Swan name is cast into the side of the frame and ignition is by timer and spark plug.  Otherwise, it retains many of the Swan features.   Shown in Photo 15 is a cylinder and head detail which shows this engine has the patented Swan compression release.

And so the Swan story concludes with Photo 16.  Next month the article will continue with the Lima story.

The museum's 2014 season will soon end with our big Fall Show and Swap Meet on October 16, 17, and 18.  Please try to attend.  Many of our engines will be running, and we will also have guest exhibitors, a flea market, and plenty of good food. Special off season tours can be arranged by contacting the museum.  Please see our website at or call 814-849-6883.  See you then!

Photo 1: U.S. patent 750,318 for a starting device

Patent for Engine

Photo 2: U.S. patent 771,028 for a gas engine

Swan Carburetor Patent 

Photo 3: U.S. patent 1,260,594 for a carburetor

Swan Carburetor

Photo 4: Swan carburetor for Fords

Swan near Pennville, Indiana

Photo 5: The 25 hp Swan as found near Pennville, Indiana

Disassembling the Swan Engine 

Photo 6: Disassembling the outboard bearing and clutch

Ready to Load the Engine 

Photo 7: Ready to load the engine

Good Job 

Photo 8: A job well done!

Last Check 

Photo 9: One last check before departure

Swan at CPM 

Photo 10: The 25 hp Swan now in the Harvey Expo Building

Swan Cylinder Detail 

Photo 11: Detail of Swan cylinder

Expansion Chamber 

Photo 12: Evidence of Swan's patented expansion chamber

Swan Head 

Photo 13: Detail of the head and valve chests

5 Hp Swan Engine 

Photo 14: 5 hp Swan engine

Swan 5 Hp Compression Release 

Photo 15: Compression release on the 5 hp engine

Swan Grave Marker 

Photo 16: Grave marker for John W. Swan


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