The Corliss Engine

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On May 10, 1876, the crowd held its breath as President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil started the massive Corliss engine, which stood at the center of Machinery Hall. Nearly 190,000 visitors had flooded the fairgrounds on opening day, and a choir of 1,000 sang the “Centennial Hymn,” composed for the occasion by John Greenleaf Whittier.

With a hiss of steam and the clank of pistons, the Corliss engine shook to life, as did the fair it powered. The great engine, according to historian Esther M. Klein, “symbolized the nation’s growth.” i  Journalists like William Dean Howells saw it in poetic terms. “It rises loftily in the centre of the huge structure,” he wrote, “an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble, the hundred life like details do their office with unerring intelligence.” Howells also felt that technology was America’s answer to the art and culture of Europe. “Yes, it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks,” he concluded, “by and by the inspired marbles, the breathing canvases, the great literature; for the present America is voluble in the strong metals and their infinite uses.” ii

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The unveiling of the Corliss engine in 1876 was the equivalent to the release of the iPad in 2010. The Corliss engine was not just a demonstration piece: through a system of shafts and underground tunnels, it directly powered 800 machines throughout the Centennial Exposition. One of the marvels on display would revolutionize the world: a new invention by Alexander Graham Bell. Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil put his ear to its speaker and heard Bell reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy. “My God, it talks!” the emperor spluttered. iii

The steam engine was hardly new technology: it had been in practical use since the early 1700s, when it was first used in British coal mines.  John Fitch operated America’s first commercial steamboat between Philadelphia and Camden, but he did not attract enough backing to continue his business. Starting in 1802, two Watt steam engines powered the first Philadelphia Waterworks at Centre Square. Five years after that, Robert Fulton built the first commercially viable steamboat, which plied the Hudson River between New York and Albany. Much progress had been made in the decades leading up to the 1876 Centennial. The Corliss engine in Machinery Hall was of a type used to power large, fast coastal and river steamers. It’s variable valve timing, an idea patented by inventor George Henry Corliss in 1849, made this engine 30% more efficient than earlier steam engines. The Centennial engine towered 45 feet in the air and boasted a flywheel 30 feet in diameter. Its two cylinders, each nearly four feet in diameter, contained two rotating steam and two rotating exhaust valves. The pistons turned a crankshaft at 36 revolutions per minute, and the engine itself was rated at 1,400 horsepower. iv

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On a ship, the beam that connected the pistons to the flywheel stuck up above the superstructure, and the flywheel then spun a pair of paddlewheels. Because of the beam’s rocking motion, passengers called these “walking beam” engines. Outside of steamship use, Corliss engines freed America’s burgeoning industry from dependence on waterpower. Corliss engines powered textile looms, rolling mills, saw mills, and pumping stations. They were also remarkably durable machines, often lasting decades before wearing out.

Nearly three decades after the Centennial, steam power spawned and was eventually supplanted by a new force: electricity. Historian Henry Adams spent hours gazing at another massive Corliss engine at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This time, the Corliss engine did not directly power the fair’s machinery. It powered an electrical dynamo, which in turn powered thousands of incandescent bulbs and electrical appliances.

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Unlike the steam engine, with its visible mechanical components, electricity was invisible to the naked eye. To Adams, it appeared the dynamo was replacing the Virgin Mary as the “greatest force the Western world ever felt,” and the prospect was frightening. “The dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight,” he continued, “but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity.” v

As for the Centennial Corliss engine, it remained in service long after the exposition closed. George Pullman, president of the Chicago-based railroad car manufacturer, purchased the engine to power one of his factories. The old engine was not scrapped until 1910, after thirty four years of service. By then, the old fashioned Corliss engine, with its clunky pistons and cumbersome “walking beam,” was completely obsolete. It had been supplanted by Charles Parsons’ compact, much more efficient steam turbine, which are still used in power plants and ships to this day.

References:

[i] Esther M. Klein, Fairmount Park: A History and Guidebook, World’s Largest Municipal Park (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania: Harcum Junior College Press, 1974), p.29.

[ii] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC http://www.eng.mu.edu/corlissg/gc_engine.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iii] “More About Bell,” The Telephone, The American Experience, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/telephone/peopleevents/mabell.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[iv] About the Corliss Engine, Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EEC http://www.eng.mu.edu/corlissg/gc_engine.html Accessed May 16, 2010.

[v] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1918. http://www.bartleby.com/159/25.html

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