by Archibald Williams October 25th, 2023
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If carbon and oxygen be made to combine chemically, the process is accompanied by the phenomenon called heat. If heat be applied to a liquid or gas in a confined space it causes a violent separation of its molecules, and power is developed. In the case of a steam-engine the fuel is coal (carbon in a more or less pure form), the fluid, water. By burning the fuel under a boiler, a gas is formed which, if confined, rapidly increases the pressure on the walls of the confining vessel. If allowed to pass into a cylinder, the molecules of steam, struggling to get as far as possible from one another, will do useful work on a piston connected by rods to a revolving crank. We here see the combustion of fuel external to the cylinder, i.e. under the boiler, and the fuel and fluid kept apart out of actual contact. In the gas or oil-vapour engine the fuel is brought into contact with the fluid which does the work, mixed with it, and burnt inside the cylinder. Therefore these engines are termed internal combustion engines. Supposing that a little gunpowder were placed in a cylinder, of which the piston had been pushed almost as far in as it would go, and that the powder were fired by electricity. The charcoal would unite with the oxygen contained in the saltpetre and form a large volume of gas. This gas, being heated by the ignition, would instantaneously expand and drive out the piston violently.
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The Romance of Modern Mechanism by Archibald Williams is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. CHAPTER VI



If carbon and oxygen be made to combine chemically, the process is accompanied by the phenomenon called heat. If heat be applied to a liquid or gas in a confined space it causes a violent separation of its molecules, and power is developed.

In the case of a steam-engine the fuel is coal (carbon in a more or less pure form), the fluid, water. By burning the fuel under a boiler, a gas is formed which, if confined, rapidly increases the pressure on the walls of the confining vessel. If allowed to pass into a cylinder, the molecules of steam, struggling to get as far as possible from one another, will do useful work on a piston connected by rods to a revolving crank.

We here see the combustion of fuel external to the cylinder, i.e. under the boiler, and the fuel and fluid kept apart out of actual contact. In the gas or oil-vapour engine the fuel is brought into contact with the fluid which does the work, mixed with it, and burnt inside the cylinder. Therefore these engines are termed internal combustion engines.

Supposing that a little gunpowder were placed in a cylinder, of which the piston had been pushed almost as far in as it would go, and that the powder were fired by electricity. The charcoal would unite with the oxygen contained in the saltpetre and form a large volume of gas. This gas, being heated by the ignition, would instantaneously expand and drive out the piston violently.

A very similar thing happens at each explosion of an internal combustion engine. Into the cylinder is drawn a charge of gas, containing carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, and also a proportion of air. This charge is squeezed by the inward movement of the piston; its temperature is raised by the compression, and at the proper moment it is ignited. The oxygen and carbon seize on one another and burn (or combine), the heat being increased by the combustion of the hydrogen. The air atoms are expanded by the heat, and work is done on the piston. But the explosion is much gentler than in the case of gunpowder.

During recent years the internal combustion engine has been making rapid progress, ousting steam power from many positions in which it once reigned supreme. We see it propelling vehicles along roads and rails, driving boats through the water, and doing duty in generating stations and smelting works to turn dynamos or drive air-pumps—not to mention the thousand other forms of usefulness which, were they enumerated here, would fill several pages.

A decade ago an internal combustion engine of 100 h.p. was a wonder; to-day single engines are built to develop 3,000 h.p., and in a few years even this enormous capacity will doubtless be increased.

It is interesting to note that the rival systems—gas and steam—were being experimented with at the same time by Robert Street and James Watt respectively. While Watt applied his genius to the useful development of the power latent in boiling water, Street, in 1794, took out letters patent for an engine to be worked by the explosions caused by vaporising spirits of turpentine on a hot metal surface, mixing the vapour with air in a cylinder, exploding the mixture, and using the explosion to move a piston. In his, and subsequent designs, the mixture was pumped in from a separate cylinder under slight pressure. Lenoir, in 1860, conceived the idea of making the piston suck in the charge, so abolishing the need of a separate pump; and many engines built under his patents were long in use, though, if judged by modern standards, they were very wasteful of fuel. Two years later Alphonse Beau de Rochas proposed the further improvement of utilising the cylinder, not only as a suction pump, but also as a compressor; since he saw that a compressed mixture would ignite very much more readily than one not under pressure. Rochas held the secret of success in his grasp, but failed to turn it to practical account. The "Otto cycle," invented by Dr. Otto in 1876, is really only Rochas's suggestion materialised. The large majority of internal combustion engines employ this "cycle" of operations, so we may state its exact meaning:—

(1) A mixture of explosive gas and air is drawn into the cylinder by the piston as it passes outwards (i.e. in the direction of the crank), through the inlet valve.

(2) The valve closes, and the returning piston compresses the mixture.

(3) The mixture is fired as the piston commences its second journey outwards, and gives the "power" stroke.

(4) The piston, returning again, ejects the exploded mixture through the outlet or exhaust valve, which began to open towards the end of the third stroke.

Briefly stated, the "cycle" is—suction, compression, explosion, expulsion; one impulse being given during each cycle, which occupies two complete revolutions of the fly-wheel. Since the first, second, and third operations all absorb energy, the wheel must be heavy enough to store sufficient momentum during the "power" stroke to carry the piston through all its three other duties.

Year by year, the compression of the mixture has been increased, and improvements have been made in the methods of governing the speed of the engine, so that it may be suitable for work in which the "load" is constantly varying. By doubling, trebling, and quadrupling the cylinders the drive is rendered more and more steady, and the elasticity of a steam-engine more nearly approached.

The internal combustion engine has "arrived" so late because in the earlier part of last century conditions were not favourable to its development. Illuminating gas had not come into general use, and such coal gas as was made was expensive. The great oil-fields of America and Russia had not been discovered. But while the proper fuels for this type of motor were absent, coal, the food of the steam-engine, lay ready to hand, and in forms which, though useless for many purposes, could be advantageously burnt under a boiler.

Now the situation has altered. Gas is abundant; and oil of the right sort costs only a few pence a gallon. Inventors and manufacturers have grasped the opportunity. To-day over 3,000,000 h.p. is developed continuously by the internal combustion engine.

Steam would not have met so formidable a rival had not that rival had some great advantages to offer. What are these? Well, first enter a factory driven by steam power, and carefully note what you see. Then visit a large gas- or oil-engine plant. You will conclude that the latter scores on many points. There are no stokers required. No boilers threaten possible explosions. The heat is less. The dust and dirt are less. The space occupied by the engines is less. There is no noisome smoke to be led away through tall and expensive chimneys. If work is stopped for an hour or a day, there are no fires to be banked or drawn—involving waste in either case.

Above all, the gas engine is more efficient, or, if you like to express the same thing in other words, more economical. If you use only one horse-power for one hour a day, it doesn't much matter whether that horse-power-hour costs 4d. or 5d. But in a factory where a thousand horse-power is required all day long, the extra pence make a big total. If, therefore, the proprietor finds that a shilling's-worth of gas or oil does a quarter as much work again as a shilling's-worth of coal, and that either form of fuel is easily obtained, you may be sure that, so far as economy is concerned, he will make up his mind without difficulty as to the class of engine to be employed. A pound of coal burnt under the best type of steam-engine gives but 10 per cent. of its heating value in useful work. A good oil-engine gives 20-25 per cent., and in special types the figures are said to rise to 35-40 per cent. We may notice another point, viz. that, while a steam-engine must be kept as hot as possible to be efficient, an internal combustion engine must be cooled. In the former case no advantage, beyond increased efficiency, results. But in the latter the water passed round the cylinders to take up the surplus heat has a value for warming the building or for manufacturing processes.

Putting one thing with another, experts agree that the explosion engine is the prime mover of the future. Steam has apparently been developed almost to its limit. Its rival is but half-grown, though already a giant.

Some internal combustion engines use petroleum as their fuel, converting it into gas before it is mixed with air to form the charge; others use coal-gas drawn from the lighting mains; "poor gas" made in special plants for power purposes; or natural gas issuing from the ground. Natural gas occurs in very large quantities in the United States, where it is conveyed through pipes under pressure for hundreds of miles, and distributed among factories and houses for driving machinery, heating, and cooking. In England and Europe the petroleum engine and coal-gas engine have been most utilised; but of late the employment of smelting-furnace gases—formerly blown into the air and wasted—and of "producer" gas has come into great favour with manufacturers. The latest development is the "suction" gas engine, which makes its own gas by drawing steam and air through glowing fuel during the suction stroke.

We will consider the various types under separate headings devoted

(1) To the oil-fuel engine,

(2) The producer-gas engine and the suction-gas engine,

(3) Blast-furnace gas engines,

with reference to the installations used in connection with the last two.

All explosion engines (excepting the very small types employed on motor cycles) have a water-jacket round the cylinders to absorb some of the heat of combustion, which would otherwise render the metal so hot as to make proper lubrication impossible, and also would unduly expand the incoming charge of gas and air before compression. The ideal engine would take in a full charge of cold mixture, which would receive no heat from the walls of the cylinder, and during the explosion would pass no heat through the walls. In other words, the ideal metal for the cylinders would be one absolutely non-receptive of heat. In the absence of this, engineers are obliged to make a compromise, and to keep the cylinder at such a temperature that it can be lubricated fittingly, while not becoming so cold as to absorb too much of the heat of explosion.


These fall into two main classes:—

(a) Those using light, volatile, mineral oils—such as petrol and benzoline—and alcohol, a vegetable product.

(b) Those using heavy oils, such as paraffin oil (kerosene) and the denser constituents of rock-oil left in the stills after the kerosene has been driven off. American petroleum is rich in burning-oil and petrol; Russian in the very heavy residue, called astakti. Given the proper apparatus for vaporisation, mineral oils of any density can be used in the explosion engine.

The first class is so well known as the mover of motor vehicles and boats that we need not linger here on it. It may, however, be remarked that engines using the easily-vaporised oils are not of large powers, since the fuel is too expensive to make them valuable for installations where large units of power are needed. They have been adopted for locomotives on account of their lightness, and the ease with which they can be started. Petrol vaporises at ordinary temperatures, so that air merely passed over the spirit absorbs sufficient vapour to form an explosive mixture. The "jet" carburetter, now generally employed, makes the mixture more positive by atomising the spirit as it passes through a very fine nozzle into the mixing chamber under the suction from the cylinder. On account of their small size spirit engines work at very high speeds as compared with the large oil or gas engine. Thus, while a 2,000 h.p. Körting gas engine develops full power at eighty-five revolutions a minute, the tiny cycle motor must be driven at 2,000 to 3,000 revolutions. Speaking generally, as the size increases the speed decreases.

Of heavy oil engines there are some dozens of well-tried types. They differ in their methods of effecting the following operations.

  1. The feeding of the oil fuel to the engine.

  2. The conversion of the oil into vapour.

  3. The ignition of the charge.

  4. The governing of speed.

All these engines have a vaporiser, or chamber wherein the oil is converted into gas by the action of heat. When starting-up the engine, this chamber must be heated by a specially designed lamp, similar in principle to that used by house painters for burning old paint off wood or metal.

Let us now consider the operations enumerated above in some detail.

  1. The oil supply. Fuel is transferred from the storage tank to the vaporiser either by the action of gravity through a regulating device to prevent "flooding," or by means of a small pump, or by the suction of the piston, which lifts the liquid. In some engines the air and gas enter the cylinder through a single valve; in others through separate valves.

  2. Vaporisation. As already remarked, the vaporising chamber must be heated to start the engine. When work has begun the lamp may be removed if the engine is so designed that the chamber stores up sufficient heat in its walls from each explosion to vaporise the charge for the next power stroke. The Crossley engine has a lamp continuously burning; the Hornsby-Ackroyd depends upon the storage of heat from explosions in a chamber opening into the cylinder. The best designs are fairly equally divided between the two systems.

  3. Ignition of the compressed charge is effected in one of four ways: by bringing the charge, at the end of the compression stroke, into contact with a closed tube projecting from the cylinder and heated outside by a continuously burning lamp; by the heat stored in some part of the combustion chamber (i.e. that portion of the cylinder not swept by the piston); by an electric spark; or by the mere heat of compression. The second and third methods are confined to comparatively few makes; and the Diesel Oil Engine (of which more presently) has a monopoly of the fourth.

  4. Governing. All engines which turn machinery doing intermittent work—such as that of a sawmill, or electric generating plant connected with a number of motors—must be very carefully guarded from overrunning. Imagine the effect on an engine which is putting out its whole strength and getting full charges of fuel, if the belt suddenly slipped off and it were "allowed its head." A burst fly-wheel would be only one of the results. The steam-engine is easily controlled by the centrifugal action of a ball-governor, which, as the speed increases, gradually spreads its balls and lifts a lever connected with a valve in the steam supply pipe. Owing to its elastic nature, steam will do useful work if admitted in small quantities to the cylinder. But a difficulty arises with the internal combustion engine if the supply of mixture is similarly throttled, because a loss of quantity means loss of compression and bad ignition. Many oil engines are therefore governed by apparatus which, when the speed exceeds a certain limit, cuts off the supply altogether, either by throwing the oil-pump temporarily out of action, or by lifting the exhaust valve so that the movement of the piston causes no suction—the "hit-and-miss" method, as it is called.

The means adopted depends on the design of the engine; and it must be said that, though all the devices commonly used effect their purpose, none are perfect; this being due rather to the nature of an internal explosion engine than to any lack of ingenuity on the part of inventors. The steadiest running is probably given with the throttle control, which diminishes the supply. On motor cars this method has practically ousted the "hit-and-miss" governed exhaust valve; but in stationary engines we more commonly find the speed controlled by robbing the mixture of the explosive gas in inverse proportion to the amount of the work required from the engine.


The Diesel differs from other internal combustion engines in the following respects:—

  1. It works with very much higher compression.

  2. The ignition is spontaneous, resulting from the high compression of the charge alone.

  3. The fuel is not admitted into the cylinder until the power-stroke begins, and enters in the form of a fine spray.

  4. The combustion of the fuel is much slower, and therefore gives a more continuous and elastic push to the piston.

The engine works on the ordinary Otto cycle. To start it, air compressed in a separate vessel is injected into the cylinder. The piston flies out, and on its return squeezes the air to about 500 lbs. to the square inch, thus rendering it incandescent.[11] Just as the piston begins to move out again a valve in the cylinder-head opens, and a jet of pulverised oil is squirted in by air compressed to 100 lbs. per square inch more than the pressure in the cylinder. The vapour, meeting the hot air, burns, but comparatively slowly: the pressure in the cylinder during the stroke decreasing much more gradually than in other engines. Governing is effected by regulation of the amount of oil admitted into the cylinder.

In spite of its high compression this engine runs with very little vibration. The writer saw a penny stand unmoved on its edge on the top of a cylinder in which the piston was reciprocating 500 times a minute!


These engines are worked by a special gas generated in an apparatus called a "producer." If air is forced through incandescent carbon in a closed furnace its oxygen unites with the carbon and forms carbonic acid gas, known chemically as CO2, because every molecule of the gas contains one atom of carbon and two of oxygen. This gas, being the product of combustion, cannot burn (i.e. combine with more oxygen), but as it passes up through the glowing coke, coal, or other fuel, it absorbs another carbon atom into every molecule, and we have C2O2, or 2 CO, which we know as carbon monoxide. This gas may be seen burning on the top of an open fire with a very pale blue flame, as it once more combines with oxygen to form carbonic acid gas.

The carbon monoxide is valuable as a heating agent, and when mixed with air forms an explosive mixture.

If along with the air sent into our furnace there goes a proportion of steam, further chemical action results. The oxygen of the steam combines with carbon to form carbon monoxide, and sets free the hydrogen. The latter gas, when it combines with oxygen in combustion, causes intense heat; so that if from the furnace we can draw off carbon monoxide and hydrogen, we shall be able to get a mixture which during combustion will set up great heat in the cylinder of an engine.

In 1878 Mr. Emerson Dowson invented an apparatus for manufacturing a gas suitable for power plant, the gas being known as Producer or Poor Gas, the last term referring to its poorness in hydrogen as compared with coal and other gases. While the hydrogen is a desirable ingredient in an explosive charge, it must not form a large proportion, since under compression it renders the mixture in which it takes part dangerously combustible, and liable to spontaneous ignition before the piston has finished the compression stroke. Water-gas, very rich in hydrogen, and made by a very similar process, is therefore not suitable for internal combustion engines.

There are many types of producers, but they fall under two main heads, i.e. the pressure and the suction.

The pressure producer contains the following essential parts:—

The generator, a vertical furnace fed from the top through an air-tight trap, and shut off below from the outside atmosphere by having its foot immersed in water. Any fuel or ashes which fall through the bars into the water can be abstracted without spoiling the draught. Air and steam are forced into the generator, and pass up through the fuel with the chemical results already described. The gases then flow into a cooler, enclosed in a water-jacket, through which water circulates, and on into a scrubber, where they must find their way upwards through coke kept dripping with water from overhead jets. The water collects impurities of all sorts, and the gas is then ready for storage in the gas-holders or for immediate use in the engines.

A pound of anthracite coal thus burnt will yield enough gas to develop 1 h.p. for one hour.

Suction Gas Plants.—With these gas is not stored in larger quantities than are needed for the immediate work of the engine. In fact, the engine itself during its suction strokes draws air and steam through a very small furnace, coolers, and scrubbers direct into the cylinder. The furnace is therefore fed with air and water, not by pressure from outside, but by suction from inside, hence the name "suction producer." At the present time suction gas engines are being built for use on ships, since a pound of fuel thus consumed will drive a vessel further than if burnt under a steam boiler. Very possibly the big ocean liners of twenty years hence may be fitted with such engines in the place of the triple and quadruple expansion steam machinery now doing the work.


Every iron blast-furnace is very similar in construction and action to the generator of a producer-gas plant. Into it are fed through a hopper, situated in the top, layers of ore, coal or coke, and limestone. At the bottom enters a blast of air heated by passing through a stove of firebrick raised to a high temperature by the carbon monoxide gas coming off from the furnace. When the stove has been well heated the gas supply is shut off from it and switched to the engine-house to create power for driving the huge blowers.

The gas contains practically no hydrogen, as the air sent through the furnace is dry; but since it will stand high compression, it is very suitable for use in large engines. Formerly all the gas from the furnace was expelled into the open air and absolutely wasted; then it was utilised to heat the forced draught to the furnace; next, to burn under boilers; and last of all, at the suggestion of Mr. B. H. Thwaite, to operate internal combustion engines for blowing purposes. Thus, in the fitness of things, we now see the biggest gas engines in the world installed where gas is created in the largest quantities, and an interesting cycle of actions results. The engine pumps the air; the air blows the furnace and melts the iron out of the ore; the furnace creates the gas; the gas heats the air or works the engines to pump more air. So engines and furnace mutually help each other, instead of all the obligation being on the one side.

When, a few years ago, the method was first introduced, engines were damaged by the presence of dust carried with the gas from the furnace. Mr. B. H. Thwaite has, however, perfected means for the separation of injurious matter, and blast-furnace gas is coming into general use in England and on the Continent. Some idea of the power which has been going to waste in ironworks for decades past may be gathered from a report of Professor Hubert after experiments made in 1900. He says that engines of large size do not use more than 100 cubic feet of average blast-furnace gas per effective horse-power-hour, which is less than one-fourth of the consumption of gas required to develop the same power from boilers and good modern condensing steam-engines, so that there is an immense surplus of power to be obtained from a blast-furnace if the blowing engines are worked by the gas it generates, a surplus which can be still further increased if the gas is properly cleaned. It is estimated that for every 100 tons of coke used in an ordinary Cleveland [128]blast-furnace, after making ample allowance for gas for the stoves and power for the lifts, pumps, etc., and for gas for working the necessary blowing engines, there is a surplus of at least 1,500 h.p.; so that by economising gas by cleaning, and developing the necessary power by gas engines, every furnace owner would have a very large surplus of power for his steel or other works, or for selling in the form of electricity or otherwise.

Yet all this gas had been formerly turned loose for the breezes to warm their fingers at! Truly, as an observant writer has recorded, the sight of a special plant being put up near a blast furnace to manufacture gas for the blowing engines suggests the pumping of water uphill in order to get water-power!

Messrs. Westgarth and Richardson, of Middlesbrough; the John Cockerill Company, of Seraing, Belgium; and the De la Vergne Company, of New York, are among the chief makers of the largest gas engines in the world, ranging up to 3,750 h.p. each. These immense machines, some with fly-wheels 30 feet in diameter, and cylinders spacious enough for a man to stand erect in, work blowers for furnaces or drive dynamos. At the works of the manufacturers mentioned the engines helped to make the steel, and turn the machinery for the creation of brother monsters.

Five of sixteen 2,000 h.p. Körting Gas Engines built by the De la Vergne Company of New York City for blowing the blast furnaces of the Lackawanna Steel Company. The gas-engine plant at these works is the largest in the world. Notice the man to the left.

This use of a "bye-product" of industry is remarkable, but it can be paralleled. Furnace slag, once cast away as useless, is now recognised to be a valuable manure, or is converted into bricks, tiles, cement, and other building materials. Again, the former waste from the coal-gas purifier assumes importance as the origin of aniline dyes, creosote, saccharine, ammonia, and oils. We really appear to be within sight of the happy time when waste will be unknown. And it therefore is curious that we still burn gas as an illuminant, when the same, if made to work an engine, would give more lighting power in the shape of electric current supplying incandescent lamps.


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