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The Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive: Boxy but Significant

August 19, 2021 Archive Insight
Black rail car on railroad tracks

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.

Black-and-white photo of a boxy railcar on railroad tracks
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.”

technology, railroads, power, Henry Ford Museum

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