Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Ingersoll-Rand Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, 1926 / THF67890
Despite its virtually complete lack of visual charm (not a shred of rugged elegance here; this is the classic “box on wheels”), the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is actually one of the most significant items in our railroad collections. This engine was part of a calculated and savvy business move by Ingersoll-Rand (partnering with General Electric and American Locomotive) to produce a new locomotive type to challenge the steam locomotive—a deliberate attempt to break into the massive railroad market using internal combustion technology. While Ingersoll-Rand never really gained a foothold in the field, its venture played a successful part in the practical demonstration of this new form of motive power.
Hindsight suggests certain inevitability in the demise of the steam locomotive—an inflexible and inefficient mechanism compared with the modular, easily deployed workhorse diesel. From a 1920s perspective, however, the diesel had little going for it. Overly complex and unproven, it seemed a minor interloper in an industry with so much invested—both monetarily and intellectually—in what was then a mature and refined technology. Even then, however, there were factors starting to work against the all-pervasive steam locomotive, specifically the mid-1920s moves by New York City and Chicago to ban the use of steam locomotives within their city limits on account of pollution concerns—fertile soil for the growth of alternative technologies.
Ingersoll-Rand's Diesel-Electric Locomotive #90 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1926. Ingersoll-Rand used the locomotive in the railyard at its Phillipsburg plant for some 40 years. Donated to The Henry Ford in 1970, the locomotive received a cosmetic restoration in 1983. / THF271022
There is a touch of David and Goliath about this artifact when viewed in the context of the sheer numbers of steam locomotives then in service. This and other units like it were the unassuming thin end of a wedge that was to revolutionize the railroad scene. In 1925, there was just one diesel to 63,612 steam locomotives in mainline service in the United States; by 1945, there were 3,816 diesels to 38,853 steam locomotives; and by 1960, the final year for steam on Class I railroads here, there were 28,278 diesels to 261 steam locomotives.
Explore our Ingersoll-Rand locomotive and the transition from steam to internal combustion power further here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Tucked away among the rolling stock and locomotives on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is an unassuming piece of railroad equipment, modest and apparently devoid of style or character. This little locomotive is one of the most significant items in the collection. It is one of the first locomotives to successfully use internal combustion instead of steam as its power source.
The decline of steam By the mid-1920s the design and development of steam locomotives had become rigorous and scientific. The dominance of steam, however, was being challenged. Could the internal combustion engine with its higher efficiency, ease of operation, and reliance on cheap fuel become an alternative power source for railroad operations? Smoke abatement rulings in Chicago and New York City provided a further incentive for researching alternatives to steam power.
Success with internal combustion General Electric's internal combustion engine/railroad interests dated back to 1904. However, by 1920 they had not developed a suitable engine. In late 1923, the Ingersoll-Rand Company successfully developed a locomotive to General Electric's specifications. Over the next 13 months it was tested on 10 different railroad systems. Its success led to a production run of variant engines that ended in 1937 when Ingersoll-Rand withdrew from the locomotive-building field. Cheaper than steam The American Locomotive Company supplied the car bodies for these early locomotives. Assembly took place at the General Electric plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. Ingersoll-Rand supplied the engines, building their sales pitch around low operating cost. Number 90, the sixteenth unit built, was delivered in December 1926 and used as a promotional demonstrator, switching in Ingersoll-Rand's Phillipsburg, New Jersey, plant rail yards.
Ingersoll-Rand's Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, probably 1926. THF271020
Efficient design Number 90's blunt appearance hardly suggests speed or glamour, but compared to steam locomotive switchers its angular outline appears neat and businesslike. The operator's positions -- located at either end -- are clean and tidy, partitioned from the heat of the engine, located in the center of the car. The locomotive's operation is streamlined even if its style is minimal. Subsequent collaborations between industrial designers and railroad companies produced locomotive designs that would further emphasize Number 90's utilitarian appearance.
The job of the switcher Switchers worked out their years in dirty yards assembling the freight trains that were as much a part of the railroad experience as the fastest overnight express. Number 90 continued in use as a switcher in the Ingersoll-Rand plant until the late 1960s by which time the diesel revolution that it had helped begin had swept steam power aside in the United States.
Maker: General Electric/Ingersoll-Rand/American Locomotive Company Engine: 6-cylinder diesel Horsepower: 300 @ 550 rpm. Displacement: 5655 cu. in. Generator: 200 kilowatts, 600 volts Traction motors: 4 @ 95 horsepower each Weight: 60 tons Tractive effort: 36,000 lbs. Speed: 30 mph. Gift of Ingersoll-Rand Company
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director of Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.
Bergmann & Company Edison Chemical Meter, Used at the City Hotel, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 1883. THF164679
As work progresses on the Electrical Collection thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, the fascinating context in which these objects were used is discovered. This Edison chemical meter used at the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the first hotel commercially wired for electricity, and was part of the first three-wire power system in the world.
Following the success of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the first central power station in the world, Thomas Edison sent his agent, P. B. Shaw, to find other ideal locations for more central power stations. The locations needed to have high gas prices to make the switch to electric lights appealing, and inexpensive fuel to help compete in the lighting business.
Shaw traveled the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to find a place that met the criteria, and organized multiple Edison Electric Illuminating Companies including Shamokin (1882), Sunbury (July 1883), and Mount Carmel (November 1883). The site selected in Sunbury backed up onto a stream flowing down from Shamokin, which would deposit coal on its banks after heavy rainfall or melting snow. Sunbury’s high cost of gas, free coal, and proximity to water meant that it was the perfect location for a power plant; however, the location was outside the town’s business center, which would add to the cost due to the length of wires needing to be strung from the power plant to potential customers.
To offset costs, Edison took a party of potential donors on his electric railway to demonstrate his innovative technology. After the demonstration, Edison was inspired to improve his two-wire system in use in New York by adding a third-wire to act as a neutral line, as well as using two dynamos to generate 220 volts while still allowing 110 volt lamp usage to ensure consistent distribution of power throughout the long wires. After a brief test, Edison applied for a patent and the three wires with conductors were strung to the City Hotel, thus making it the first building to be commercially wired for electricity and Sunbury the first city to have three wire commercial direct current incandescent lighting and overhead conductors.
On July 4, 1883, the City Hotel of Sunbury became the first building lit with incandescent carbon-filament light bulbs using the three wire system. To measure the electricity used by the hotel, an Edison Chemical Meter, one of the first electric wattmeters, was installed. These electrolytic meters measured electricity through electroplating, but needed to be removed and measured at the central station in order to bill customers. The meters were reliable, despite the cumbersome method for billing, but were phased out in the 1890s and replaced by mechanical meters, which were easier to read.
Laura Lipp Myles is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.
While researching the many electrical objects being digitized as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant, a few stories have stood out to me. These stories sometimes involve the people behind the scenes: manufacturers, inventors, etc., and other times are about how the object was used. Below are four such objects and their stories.
This Jenney Electric Motor Company rheostat has uncovered an interesting story about the company’s namesake. It was designed by Charles G. Jenney who was awarded a patent for it in 1892. Jenney, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father to design and produce electrical equipment for the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company. On February 27, 1885, Jenney, who had been contracted to the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company by his father while still a minor, successfully petitioned to be removed from the company, and, a month later, he founded the Jenney Electric Light Company later the Jenney Electric Company. The Jenney Electric Company was demonstrating Jenney’s dynamos, arc lamps, and incandescent lamps by August that same year. This company was bought out and Jenney started again, this time with the Jenney Electric Motor Company in 1889 for which he produced electrical equipment like this rheostat, filed for more patents, and wired and lit the streets of Indianapolis.
If you’ve walked through “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum, you’re familiar with the long and complicated history of social transformation, including civil rights and race relations, in America. Some artifacts, like the Rosa Parks Bus, are primary sources in this story, but we also hold collections that offer a more oblique take, such as about 100 photo negatives we’ve just digitized relating to five days of civil unrest in Detroit in July 1967.
The images come from Detroit Edison, which was charged with the very normal work of restoring electricity under very abnormal conditions. While the photos primarily document the power company’s work in the wake of the unrest, the events of the preceding days and their aftermath are omnipresent, as you can see in this image. We undertook this digitization project as part of our participation in “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” “a multi-year community engagement project of the Detroit Historical Society that brings together diverse voices and communities around the effects of an historic crisis to find their place in the present and inspire the future.”
During 2017, we shared more collections-based stories related to the complex roots of, and reactions to, Detroit 67, in keeping with our mission to inspire people to help shape a better future. For now, visit our Digital Collections to browse all of the July 1967 Detroit Edison images.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in July 2020.
We are about 35% of the way through our 24-month project to digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution collections, thanks in large part to a generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and nearly 100 objects from the grant are currently accessible through our Digital Collections.
Outside that project, but on a related note, we’ve just finished digitizing 132 photos of figures associated with the same companies as the objects we’re digitizing in the grant. For example, now you can see images of people associated with Westinghouse Electric Company, and also find objects created by that company, most of which were conserved and photographed through the grant. One intriguing image we found is this 1880 photograph of Thomas Edison associate Charles Batchelor, which notes it is “the first photograph ever taken by incandescent electric lamps.”
Visit our Digital Collections to see all of these portraits of electrical pioneers, and keep an eye out for more artifacts digitized through the grant to be added over upcoming months. Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
Curator of Public Life Donna Braden has used the phrase “bottomless pit of wonderfulness” to describe The Henry Ford’s collections, because they are so vast and so full of significant artifacts. One downside of the amazing quantity and quality of our holdings is that only a very small percentage are on display on our campus at any given time. However, we are often able to get some of these artifacts out of storage and on public display by loaning them to other museums and institutions. We currently have over 200 artifacts on loan, and about 60 of these can be viewed through our digital collections as well. One such item is this radiation portal monitor, used at Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant (Fermi 1), which is on loan to Monroe County Community College in Monroe, Mich., for an exhibit about the plant. See more artifacts related to Fermi 1 (a number of them also on loan), and view thousands of objects, documents, and photographs not currently on public display, by visiting our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The broad iconic power of steam engines is maintained by the continued appeal of steam locomotives—an appeal kept fresh no doubt by Thomas the Tank Engine or the Hogwarts Express of the Harry Potter series. The visual impact of the earliest stationary steam engines, while less defined in the popular imagination, is undeniable when encountered in person: early beam engines exert a powerful presence, whether through their immense scale, exposed mechanical elements, or general complexity. And there is often a note of recognition—they are often identified by visitors as distant relatives of the familiar bobbing pumps found in oilfields.
Before the Age of Steam, American farmers hand-threshed wheat or oats with a flail. Threshing machines powered by horses or portable steam engines increased daily production of threshing by a hundred times.
In the 1800s, the large number of horses required for farming consumed a lot of grain. Starting in the 1860s, farmers began threshing grain to feed those horses with a cousin of the "iron horse" - a steam traction engine like the Port Huron Thresher shown above.
As a Michigan farm boy, Henry Ford recorded his first sight of a traction engine: "I remember that engine as though I had seen it only yesterday, for it was the first vehicle other than horse drawn that I had ever seen. It was intended to drive threshing machines and power sawmills and was simply a portable engine and a boiler mounted on wheels." The steam traction engine inspired Ford to design and manufacture automobiles. To other rural people it represented a grand transition in American agriculture, and a new community activity.