By DUGALD CLERK.
In earlier days of mechanics, before the work of the great Scottish engineer, James Watt, the crude steam engines of the time were known as "fire engines," not in the sense in which we now apply the term to machines for the extinguishing of fires, but as indicating the source from which the power was derived, motive power engines deriving their vitality and strength from fire. The modern name - steam engine - to some extent is a misleading one, distracting the mind from the source of power to the medium which conveys the power. Similarly the name "Gas Engine" masks the fact of the motors so called being really fire or heat engines.
The gas engine is more emphatically a "fire engine" than ever the steam engine has been. In it the fire is not tamed or diluted by indirect contact with water, but it is used direct; the fire, instead of being kept to the boiler room, is introduced direct into the motor cylinder of the engine. This at first sight looks very absurd and impracticable; difficulties at once become apparent of so overwhelming a nature that the problem seems almost an impossible one; yet this is what has been successfully accomplished in the gas engine. Engineers accustomed to the construction of steam engines would not many years ago have considered any one proposing such a thing as having taken leave of his senses.
The late Sir William Siemens worked for many years on combustion engines, some of his patents on this subject dating back to 1860. In the course of a conversation I had with him on the subject of his earlier patents, I asked him why he had entitled one of those patents "steam engine improvements" when it was wholly concerned with a gas engine using hydrogen and air in the motive cylinder, the combustion of the hydrogen taking place in the motive cylinder. He answered me that in 1860 he did not care to entitle his patent gas or combustion engine simply because engineers at that time would have thought him mad.
Notwithstanding this widespread incredulity among engineers, and the apparent novelty of the gas engine idea, fire or combustion engines have been proposed long, long ago. The first Newcomen steam engine ever set to work was used by a Mr. Back, of Wolverhampton, in the year 1711. Thirty-one years before this time, in Paris - year 1680 - Huyghens presented a memoir to the Academy of Sciences describing a method of utilizing the expansive force of gunpowder. This engineer is notable as being the very first to propose the use of a cylinder and piston, as well as the first combustion engine of a practical kind.
The engine consists of a vertical open topped cylinder, in which works a piston; the piston is connected by a chain passing over a pulley above it to a heavy weight; the upstroke is accomplished by the descent of the weight, which pulls the piston to the top of the cylinder; gunpowder placed in a tray at the bottom of the cylinder is now ignited, and expels the air with which the cylinder is filled through a shifting valve, and, after the products of combustion have cooled, a partial vacuum takes place and the atmospheric pressure forces down the piston to the bottom of its stroke, during which work may be obtained.
On the board I have made a sketch of this engine. Some years previous to Huyghens' proposal, the Abbe Hautefeuille (1678) proposed a gunpowder engine without piston for pumping water. It is similar to Savery's steam engine, but using the pressure of the explosion instead of the pressure of steam. This engine, however, had no piston, and was only applicable as a pump. The Savery principle still survives in the action of the well-known pulsometer steam pump.
Denys Papin, the pupil and assistant of Huyghens, continued experimenting upon the production of motive power, and in 1690 published a description of his attempts at Leipzig, entitled "A New Method of Securing Cheaply Motive Power of Considerable Magnitude."
He mentions the gunpowder engine, and states that "until now all experiments have been unsuccessful; and after the combustion of the exploded powder there always remains in the cylinder one-fifth of its volume of air."
For the explosion of the gunpowder he substituted the generation and condensation of steam, heating the bottom of his cylinder by a fire; a small quantity of water contained in it was vaporized, and then on removing the fire the steam condensed and the piston was forced down. This was substantially the Newcomen steam engine, but without the separate boiler.
Papin died about the year 1710, a disappointed man, about the same time as Newcomen. Thomas Newcomen, ironmonger and blacksmith, of Dartmouth, England, had first succeeded in getting his engine to work. The hard fight to wrest from nature a manageable motive power and to harness fire for industrial use was continued by this clever blacksmith, and he succeeded when the more profound but less constructively skillful philosophers had failed.
The success of the steam method and the fight necessary to perfect it to the utmost absorbed the energy of most able engineers - Beighton, John Smeaton - accomplishing much in applying and perfecting it before the appearance of James Watt upon the scene.
It is interesting to note that in England alone over 2,000 horse power of Newcomen engines were at work before Watt commenced his series of magnificent inventions; he commenced experimenting on a Newcomen engine model in 1759 at Glasgow University, and in 1774 came to Birmingham, entered into partnership with Boulton, and 1781 we find his beautiful double acting beam condensing engine in successful work.
From that time until now the steam engine has steadily advanced, increasing in economy of fuel from 10 lb. of coal per horse power per hour to about 1¾ lb. per horse power per hour, which is the best result of to-day's steam engine practice. This result, according to the highest authorities, is so near to the theoretical result possible from a steam engine that further improvement cannot now be looked for. Simultaneously with the development of the steam engine, inventors continued to struggle with the direct acting combustion or gas engine, often without any definite understanding of why they should attempt such apparent impossibilities, but always by their experiments and repeated failures increasing knowledge, and forming a firm road upon which those following them traveled to success.