Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

1859 Corliss Steam Engine

August 28, 2014 Archive Insight


Corliss engines were renowned for their superior economy but it was their smooth running speed and swift response to changes in load that ensured their great success. These engines were particularly attractive to the textile industry. The energy needed to drive the vast numbers of machines used in textile mills was considerable but the delicacy of the threads and fabrics produced by textile machinery demanded that the power source be very responsive. The patented Corliss valve gear allowed the engine to maintain the precise speed needed to avoid thread breakage while simultaneously responding to varying loads as different machines were brought in or out of operation.

This combination of assurance and lightness of touch is apparent in the 1859 Corliss engine in Henry Ford Museum. The engine is powerful and massively built but incorporates many graceful and apparently delicate elements. The engine lacks the decoration applied to many mid-nineteenth century machinery. Its unadorned lines convey mechanical elegance without seeming utilitarian.

George Corliss himself embodied similar paradoxes. He was a dedicated engineer but he claimed to never read technical journals nor work beyond regular working hours. He was litigious, continually fighting to defend his patents and thwart their infringement and yet was willing to incur a financial loss by delaying delivery of a boiler when it was discovered that a robin had built a nest in a wheel of the only vehicle large enough to make the delivery – the customer had to wait for the bird’s brood to leave the nest.

Corliss was self-made (he started as a draftsman at the company that finally bore his name) and independently minded. Typically, he designed and built the machinery that was used to build his engines. His many patents included boilers, machine tools and steam appliances.

This engine was owned by the Washington Real Estate Company of Providence, Rhode Island where it provided central mechanical power to a number of independent workshops. It is the only engine built by The Corliss Steam Engine Company during George Corliss’ lifetime to have survived.

Built by: The Corliss Steam Engine Company, Providence, Rhode Island

Date: 1859

Cylinder: Bore 24” Stroke 60”

Horsepower: 500 (approximate)

Speed: 70 rpm

Marc Greuther is Chief Curator at The Henry Ford.

1850s, 19th century, power, manufacturing, Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, engines, engineering, by Marc Greuther

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