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June 2015

Flame Ignition Engines

By Paul Harvey

As the summer solstice approaches, Coolspring Power Museum is preparing for its magnificent Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration, the Flame Ignition Expo.  This promises to be our largest event ever!  As an unprecedented gathering of the rarest flame ignition and centennial engines from across North America, it will be the largest and most significant event of its kind ever shown.  The dates are June 18, 19, and 20, 2015.  Indeed, it will be a much larger version of our Centennial Engine Expo of 1995.

The museum has worked diligently for the past year to make this great show possible.  Monumentally, a new, climate controlled structure has been erected, thanks to our generous donors.  Joined to the Susong Building, it will double its size and initially be used to house some of our exhibitors' most prized possessions.  Designed by our late Curator of Collections, Preston Foster, it will be dedicated to his memory during the show as The Preston Foster Hall.  Photo 1 shows Preston, his faithful Husky, Kanu, and one of his beloved Foos engines.  He is sadly missed by the museum, his friends, and the entire gas engine world.

We expect about forty flame ignition engines from all over the United States and Canada to arrive for display and operation at the event.  These will range from machines weighing several tons to toy engines.  All will have been built before 1900, and many in the 1870s and 1880s.  They will be displayed in three prime locations to give the visitor easy access, as most will be operating.

By now, the reader is probably wondering what a flame ignition engine is?   The answer is quite simple!  It is an engine that has a device to introduce an open flame into the cylinder to ignite the fuel charge, creating the explosion that makes the power. Usually, this is accomplished by a moving slide valve that is loaded with a tiny bit of gas at one location, ignited as the slide moves, and at the precise moment, transferred to the cylinder.  Boom! The cylinder explosion occurs and the flywheel turns. Just think of the Revolutionary War soldier touching a flame to the breech hole in a cannon to cause it to fire. In so many different configurations of the same principal, the early builders usually chose this method of ignition, long before the spark plug was designed.  Our modern engines still repeat the same cycle, but cause the ignition with a spark plug.  The ensuing explosion produces the power which is transferred to the piston.

One must keep in mind that these early inventors, mostly from Europe, had nothing to copy.  Perhaps thinking of that cannon, they had the dream of igniting a combustible fuel inside a cylinder to produce usable power.  Their inventions soon challenged the steam engine and its troublesome boiler, and they helped introduce the industrial revolution.  Many variations were tried; some were successes and others were failures.  To simplify, two classifications developed, compressing and non-compressing.  The non-compressing engines simply drew in a fuel charge, ignited it, and the further expansion  developed the power.  Although some were successful, they were very inefficient and were gone by 1900.  The compressing engines are the ones we know today.  They draw in a fuel charge on the intake stroke, compress it, then fire it.  This is more efficient and produces more power.  I will show some examples of both classes, and these can be viewed in operation during the Expo.


The first example, Photo 2,  is the magnificent 1867 Otto Langen engine made in Germany.  This is the oldest operating gas engine in the Americas, and will be displayed here for the Expo on  a special loan from the Rough & Tumble Engineers Historical Association of Kinzers, Pennsylvania.  It does not have a crankshaft, but uses a rack and pinion device to transfer the power from the piston to the flywheel.  These were actually quite successful and several hundred were built. It is one of the forerunners of all subsequent gas engines.

Photo 3 displays our Sombart gas engine.  This is a non-compressing two-cycle engine that proved successful for a few years.  This engine does have a crankshaft and provided a reasonable alternative for a steam engine in small shops.  Ours is rated at five manpower!  Yes, manpower, and not horsepower.

My last example is the little Crown pumping engine shown in Photo 4.  Designed by Lewis Hallock Nash and built by the National Meter Company of New York City, these small engines were integral with a water pump.  Popular in the 1880s, they could pump water to the top floors of the high buildings were it was stored in a cistern for use.  They were simple in design and very easy to use. We expect to have about eight displayed.


The museum's oldest operating engine is this Schleicher-Schumm built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1882.  The centerpiece of the Susong Building, it is shown in Photo 5.  This engine develops two horsepower and originally operated a print shop in Dover, Delaware.  It uses a slide mechanism in the head to transfer the open flame to the cylinder, following the German Otto design.

Photo 6 displays this beautiful 1888 Schleicher-Schumm engine.  Note that it now carries the Otto Gas Engine Company name.  It powered a small machine shop in upstate New York, and was abandoned for many years.  Now restored to its original glory, it will be displayed at our Expo, and probably stay on long term loan.  Still using the open flame, slide valve ignition, it shows several improvements from the above engine.

Many of the makers preferred to use the inverted design for their smaller engines.  Seen in Photo 7 is an inverted Crossley engine made in Manchester, England, in 1890.  Crossley obtained the German Otto license very early to make their own slide valve engines   The inverted design had more problems than advantages and was essentially gone by 1905.

This 1/2 horsepower Crossley, vintage 1889, has been on loan to the museum for many years.  It is slide valve, open flame ignition and runs superbly, producing one half horsepower.  It would have been ideal to power a small lathe, a printing press, or a large sewing machine. Note the side crankshaft on this small engine.  It is shown in Photo 8.


The kids of the 1880s and 1890s loved their "hi tech" toys every bit as much as our kids like their electronic gadgets.  Even with the limited media coverage of the past, the new gas engine was certainly in the forefront.  The little Paradox, shown in Photo 9,  was a cast iron toy engine that could fit in ones hand.  It boasted the open flame ignition, non-compressing principle.  It could run hours and hours, to the delight of the kids - the future engineers of gas engine development.

The Schoenner, seen in Photo 10, was a bit bigger and better built toy engine that used the non-compressing design.  Produced about 1890, it actually used a rotating side shaft to operate the valve.  They were open flame ignition and made enough power to operate another small toy.  Note the wood base shown in the photo.


Two very special publications have been prepared by our capable show co-chairmen; Woody Sins and Wayne Grenning.  Woody has written our yearly booklet, Bores & Stokes.  Titled The Engines of the Coolspring Power Museum Flame Expo, 2015, it actually is a "field guide" of the museum's engines as well as many of the ones our exhibitors will display.  See Photo 11.  This 44-page work starts with a detailed explanation of the flame ignition designs, copiously illustrated for easy understanding.  Photos and descriptions of the engines follow, each with photo and most in color.  Buy this book at the museum's gift shop when you arrive for $4.50 and carry it with you as you tour the flame ignition engines.  Then take several more home for your friends! 

Wayne has researched flame ignition extensively for many years, and his endeavors have produced an 875-page hardbound book titled, "Flame Ignition."  Most of the information has never before been published.  Note the cover shown in Photo 12.  To quote, this is "A Historical Account of Flame Ignition in the Internal Combustion Engine."  The work details all the early designers and dreamers from the very beginning.  It has several hundred illustrations and photos with more than half in color.  This is a book to enjoy today, refer to again and again, and then take a prime location in your engine library.  Published by Coolspring Power Museum, the printing will be limited to 1,000 copies.  Available at the gift shop, the regular hardbound version will cost $79.95.  There will be 100 copies, consecutively numbered and signed by the author, done in deluxe goatskin leather binding for $149.95 each.  The museum is proud to offer this work.

Coolspring Power Museum's grand Thirtieth Anniversary Show is almost here,  Photo 13.  I hope you will be able to join the celebration and enjoy all the flame ignition engines.  For more information, please call 814-849-6883 or see our website at  You will enjoy!  Next month, The Flywheel will continue with Part 2 of "The Genius of Verona."  See you then!

Preston Foster

Photo 1: Preston Foster, Kanu, and a Foos engine

Otto Langen Engine

Photo 2: Otto Langen free piston engine

Sombart Engine

Photo 3: Sombart Engine

Crown Pumping Engine

Photo 4: Crown pumping engine

Schleicher-Schumm Engine

Photo 5: Schleicher-Schumm engine of 1882

Schleicher-Schumm Engine

Photo 6: Schleicher-Schumm engine of 1888

Inverted Crossley Engine

Photo 7: Inverted Crossley engine

Half Horsepower Crossley Engine

Photo 8: Half horsepower Crossley engine

Paradox Engine

Photo 9: Paradox engine

Schoenner Engine

Photo 10: Schoenner engine

Bores & Strokes

Photo 11: Bores & Strokes, Volume 21

Flame Ignition Book

Photo 12: "Flame Ignition" by Wayne Grenning

Show Poster

Photo 13: Flame Ignition Expo poster


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