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May 2022


The First Commercially Successful Gas Engine

By Paul Harvey

The gas engineís humble beginnings date back to 12th century China when the cannon was invented.  Already having produced gunpowder, a weapon was not a surprising use of their new explosive.  The cannon worked well and was built in many sizes and configurations.  But all had two things in common: a barrel and a projectile. Seems simple!


Hmmm.  Many years went by, but gradually thought was given to peaceful and useful adaptations.  Now letís see; that barrel could become a cylinder, and the cannon ball a piston.  So, the inventors went to work to construct some mechanism to make a piston go back and forth and hook it up to make rotary motion.  Centuries went by before it happened.

Now letís jump ahead to the 1700s.  Gosh, thatís 500 years from that innovation of that cannon.  But an era of enlightenment had awakened with the great Industrial Revolution dating about 1760 to 1840.  So much invention had already started in the early 1700s.  Finally, that cannon barrel and ball was put to productive use!

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen, of England, developed the first commercially successful engine to use the piston and cylinder.  It produced a reciprocating motion that was widely adapted to pump water from mines.  Operated by steam, it burnt wood or coal for its boiler.

Newcomen Engine

By 1763, James Watt invented the connecting rod and crankshaft to provide a rotary motion.  The modern steam engine had been invented!  Now, what next?

Watt Engine

During the Industrial Revolution, a prolific amount of invention took place.  The early and mid-1800s saw a concentration on the internal combustion engine.  Why burn the fuel externally to make steam when it could be burned directly in the cylinder to make power?  Good idea, but how to make it happen?  So many ideas and prototypes, but they all had problems.  None reached commercial success.

But wait!  In 1860, a Belgian-French engineer, Etienne Lenoir, succeeded.  He built the first commercially successful gas engine!  Here is his story.

Etienne Lenoir

Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir was born on January 12, 1822 in the village of Mussy-la-Ville, then a part of Luxembourg.  He was the third child of eight whose father was Jean-Louis Lenoir, a merchant, and whose mother was Margot Megdelaine, a housewife.  He left the tiny village of 800 souls at an early age, destined to become an inventor, and worked as a farm hand on his journey to Paris. There, he worked as a waiter and became interested in electricity.  By much self-study, he became an accomplished engineer.  Turning to the gas engine, he had a running prototype built in 1858 and was granted a patent for it in 1860.  It was a commercial success, and although fuel inefficient, many were sold throughout France and put to useful work.  By 1864, over 130 were working in Paris itself.  Total production was about 500 engines and a German license had been issued.  His destiny was fulfilled.

Lenoir Engine

Beautiful machine, but how does it work?  Well, itís quite simple to us now but very advanced for its time.  At that time, the Otto cycle of compressing the charge was not invented yet; it had to wait another 20 years.  So, it was a non-compressing two-cycle engine.  But he made it double acting, so it fired on both sides of the piston.  Hmmm, could create a cooling problem so plenty of water had to be flowed through the cylinder.  Double slide valves, one on each side of the cylinder, were used for the intake and exhaust functions.  Refer to the following illustration.

Lenoir Engine Illustration

Pipe G is the gas intake and pipe E is the air, mixing and introduced into the cylinder by the slide valve shown.  A similar slide valve for the exhaust function is on the other side of the cylinder.  It worked very well.

But what is the device shown along the engine base?  Yep, itís a coil and batteries.  In 1858 Lenoir invented the spark plug, calling it ďjumping sparks.Ē  He used the newly invented Ruhmkorff coil to do this!

Ruhmkorff Coil

Invented by Heinrich Ruhmkorff, the coil is known to all engine folks as a ďbuzz coil.Ē  Henry Ford used them for his Model T ignition.  Sadly, Lenoirís use of the spark plug was abandoned in favor of open flame ignition and hot tube ignition for so many years.  Lenoir was truly a genius and built a wonderful machine.

Here are three views of the Lenoir engine in Deutz Technikum in Cologne, Germany.  It is operated for the museumís many visitors.

Lenoir Engine 1

Lenoir Engine 2

Lenoir Engine 3

Note the two slide valves, operated by eccentrics, located on either side of the cylinder, and the spark plugs for ignition.  Amazingly, these engines were built to 20 hp!

But Lenoir was not satisfied with stationary engine.  He built an automobile!  Yep, his car, the Hippomobile, was on the road in 1863.  He installed a 1.5 hp version of his engine into this tricycle frame and used liquid fuel by a primitive patented carburetor.  It covered the seven-mile course from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont and back in 90 minutes, at the breakneck speed of 3 km/hr.  Slow, yes, but it was successful!  A new era had begun.


He still was not satisfied so he turned to motorboats.  Installing an improved version of his engine in a 12-meter-long boat for a Mr. Dalloz, it was used on the Siene River for the next two years.

These two images from Lenoirís US patent illustrate how the engine operated. The reader can access the entire patent on Google Patents.  The engineís design is graceful and very pleasing, and was copied for future generations of engines.

Lenoir Patent 1  Lenoir Patent 2

The two slide valves are illustrated as well as the graceful governor.  It was a job well done!

Lenoir spent the rest of his life in peaceful prosperity in his apartment in Paris. He often went fly fishing in the nearby Seine, but remained active and followed the further development of the combustion engine with interest.  Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir quietly passed away on August 4, 1900.

Lenoir Reading Engine


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