By JOHN A. COLEMAN.
Mr. Chairman and gentlemen: I was rash enough some time ago to promise to prepare a paper for this occasion, the fulfillment of which prior engagements have absolutely prevented.
I would greatly prefer to be let off altogether, but I do not like to break down when expected to do anything; and if you have the patience to listen for a few minutes to the reflections of an "outsider," I will endeavor to put what I have to say in as concise form as I can, in such manner as will do no harm, even if it does no good.
For many years I was connected with steam engineering. I was once with the Corliss Steam Engine Company, and afterward was the agent of Mr. Joseph Harrison, of Russian fame, for the introduction of his safety boilers.
That brought me into contact with the heavy manufacturers throughout the Eastern States, and during that long experience I was particularly impressed with a peculiarity common to the mill owners, which, I believe it may be said with truth, is equally common to those interested in locomotive engineering, namely, how much we overlook common, every-day facts. For instance, we burn coal; that is, we think we do, and boilers are put into mills and upon railroads, and we suppose we are burning coal under them, when in reality we are only partially doing so. We think that because coal is consumed it necessarily is burned, but such is frequently very far from the fact.
I wish upon the present occasion to make merely a sort of general statement of what I conceive to be combustion, and what I conceive to be a boiler, and then to try to make a useful application of these ideas to the locomotive.
Treating first the subject of combustion, let us take the top of the grate-bars as our starting point. When we shovel coal upon the grate bars and ignite it, what happens first? We separate the two constituents of coal, the carbon from the hydrogen. We make a gas works. Carbon by itself will burn no more than a stone; neither will hydrogen. It requires a given number of equivalents of oxygen to mix with so many equivalents of carbon, and a given number of equivalents of oxygen to mix with so many of hydrogen to form that union which is necessary to produce heat. This requires time, space, and air, and one thing more, viz., heat.
I presume that most of you have read Charles Williams' treatise upon "Combustion," which was published many years ago, and which until recently was often quoted as an absolute authority upon the art of burning fuel under boilers. Mr. Williams in his treatise accurately describes the chemistry of combustion, but he has misled the world for fifty years by an error in reasoning and the failure to discuss a certain mechanical fact connected with the combination of gases in the process of combustion. He said: "What is the use of heating the air put into a furnace? If you take a cubic foot of air, it contains just so many atoms of oxygen, neither more nor less. If the air be heated, you cause it to assume double its volume, but you have not added a single atom of oxygen, and you will require twice the space for its passage between the grate bars, and twice the space in the furnace, which is a nuisance; but if the air could be frozen, it would be condensed, and more atoms of oxygen could be crowded into the cubic foot, and the fire would receive a corresponding advantage." Mr. Williams proceeded upon this theory, and died without solving the perplexing mystery of as frequent failure as success which attended his experiments with steamship boilers.
The only successes which he obtained were misleading, because they were made with boilers so badly proportioned for their work that almost any change would produce benefit.
Successful combustion requires something more than the necessary chemical elements of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, for it requires something to cook the elements, so to speak, and that is heat, and for this reason: When the coal is volatilized in the furnace, what would be a cubic foot of gas, if cold, is itself heated and its volume increased to double its normal proportion. It is thin and attenuated. The cold air which is introduced to the furnace is denser than the gas. With dampers wide open in the chimney, and the gases and air passing into the flues with a velocity of 40 feet per second, they strike the colder surface of the tubes, and are cooled below the point of combustion before they have had time to become assimilated; and although an opponent in a debate upon steam boiler tests once stated that his thermometer in the chimney showed only 250 degrees, and indicated that all the value that was practical had been obtained from the coal, I took the liberty to maintain that a chemist might have analyzed the gases and shown there were dollars in them; and that if the thermometer had been removed from the chimney and placed in the pile of coal outside the boiler, it would have gone still lower; but it would not have proved the value to have been extracted from the coal, for it was not the complete test to apply.
The condition of things in the furnace may be illustrated thus: If we should mingle a quart of molasses and a gallon of water, it would require considerable manipulation and some time to cause them to unite. Why? Because one element is so much denser than the other; but if we should mix a quart of the gallon of water with the quart of molasses, and render their densities somewhere near the density of the remaining water, and then pour the masses together, there would be a more speedy commingling of the two. And so with the furnace. I have always maintained that every furnace should be lined with fire-brick, in order that it shall be so intensely hot when the air enters that the air shall instantly be heated to the same degree of tenuity as the hot gases themselves, and the two will then unite like a flash - and that is heat. And here is the solution of the Wye Williams mystery of failure when cold air was introduced upon the top of a fire to aid combustion. The proof of the necessity for heat to aid the chemical assimilation of the volatilized coal elements is seen in starting a fire in a common stove.