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“When we have lost sight of the past, we have lost the ability to look forward intelligently.”
One of my many responsibilities as a director and a volunteer at the Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum (CCHM) is to have a solid base of knowledge about the historical artifacts at the museum. Well! Easier said than done! When one begins to research any of the artifacts; say, farm machinery, clothing, books, furniture one can very quickly find oneself going down a rabbit hole . So, the rabbit hole I would like to share with you is the plethora of small, single cylinder gasoline engines that came on the market in the late 1800’s and, in some cases, before.
Lots of PHD papers have been written on the subject of the industrial revolution and of innovative creations of machinery such as the Balun and Watt steam engines of the period 1760 to 1775 or the power loom designed by Edmund Cartwright in the 1780’s. Some eve have been written about the impact these innovations had on rural communities.
The development of better casting methods and more precise machining processes improved the ability to build a more efficient steam expansion engine as far back as 1712. Much later came the development of the internal combustion engine. In some schools of thought the advent of steam power had more impact on urban and rural communities than the computer chip.
I am not going there! Instead, I would like to look at how the single cylinder gasoline engine became a helping hand in the rural community. Try to imagine doing everything by hand: grinding corn, cutting wood, pumping water and thrashing wheat, to mention a few.
One manufacturer’s name that has stood the test of time is Briggs and Stratton. We see it today on our lawn mowers, root-tillers, water pumps and other devices. Stephen B. Briggs and Harry Stratton formed the company in 1908 – evidence that some things do survive, if only in name. Meanwhile, most of their competitors have either turned their attention to other products or have a long since faded away.
As farming became more of a business, increasing productivity and expansion was a way to success. Small gasoline-powered engines afforded a farmer time to address other work on the farm like mending fences, maintaining structures, mucking out the barn. He would have had to weigh the purchase cost of an engine against the benefits to the farm operations as this would have been a substantial investment in those times. If he were looking to purchase a one-half horsepower New Holland engine in 1912 his cost would have been $57.50. What would the equivalent of that be in today’s dollars?
When I looked at the Hercules and Fairbanks Morse engines at CCHM, I marvel at the number of small engine manufacturers that operated in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It appears almost every letter in the alphabet was used in the company names including ‘X’ in Xargill Mfg. Co, U in Utica New York 1904 and ‘Y’ in Yonkers Mfg. Co. of Yonkers, New York 1885. What a competitive industry! So, I think it is clear there was a demand for these products both in small industry and on the farm.
Much of the focus of CCHM is on our agricultural heritage, so our interest in this technology pertains to its application to farming. Here are some examples: to power a water pump for livestock and the homestead; to power a beet or corn grinder providing better silage for the livestock; to power a 32-volt generator of the time for lighting the barn; to power a buzz saw providing fire wood; and to power a saw mill for lumber to sell or use on the farm. How many of these jobs could be done by hand? All of them! But when this technology became available productivity increased significantly.
If one of these small engines failed, all these tasks could still be done by hand, though not a desirable prospect. I wonder if the same thing could be said when a computer chip fails in modern machinery!
Times have changed, but not so the pursuit of more efficient and more powerful devices. The idea of a machine freeing us from manual labour is not a new concept. In 1678, French physicist/inventor Jean Hautefeuille proposed the use of a gunpowder motor to pump water from the Seine to Versailles. No doubt the learning curve was steep. The lessons of many failures ultimately led to technological advances in this exciting bygone era. The American Book of Gasoline Engines has 584 pages cataloguing a plethora of small engines.
We strive to preserve this intriguing history at CCHM with documentary evidence and with functioning examples of old engines. Their preservation and the story of their development is a responsibility that we do not take lightly. Without small collection, we like to think we are honouring this legacy.
Our collection consists of: a 7 H.P. Fairbanks Morse-powered buzz saw purchased from Chris Janson with funds donated by Tom Smith; a 5 H.P. Hercules-powered buzz saw donated by Jack Bird, and a 7 H.P. Fairbanks Morse-powered turnip and corn grinder Donated by Frank Janson.
Visit the museum on one of our event days and hear a popping emanating from these wonderful examples of a time one can now only imagine.
CCHM is very fortunate to have members that are so knowledgeable about our artifacts and exhibits. Much of my research for this article stemmed from dialogue with Frank Janson whose hobby is building and restoring antique small engines. Frank has a collection of some thirty plus engines, most restored and running. Thanks for sharing, Frank!
If any of our readers have information or artifacts that they would like to share with us, please feel free to contact Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Richard Jolliffe