The Early History of Combustion Engines

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The Cannons

The earliest attempts to obtain motive power from heat were made by igniting flammable powder, and utilising the force of the explosion thus generated.

As a source of energy, combustible powder was the first agent used: it preceded the production of coal gas, or steam.

Strictly speaking, cannons are the oldest heat motors, and the principles on which they are constructed are identical with those of the internal combustion engine.

Abbé Hautefeuille - 1678

The first person to propose the use of explosive powder to obtain power was Abbé Hautefeuille, the son of the baker in Orleans.

To him belongs the honour of designing, not only the first engine worthy of the name, but the first machine using heat as a motive force, and capable of producing a definite quantity of continuous work. As such, he may be considered one of the originators of heat motors.

In 1678, he suggested the construction of a powder motor to raise water. As the gases cooled after combustion, a partial vacuum was formed, and the water was raised by atmospheric pressure from the reservoir.

Huygens-Papin - 1680

Hautefeuille does not seem to have actually constructed the machines he designed; but Huygens, who was the first, in 1680, to employ a cylinder and a piston, constructed a working engine, and exhibited it to Colbert, the French Minister of Finance. The powder in this motor was ignited in a little receptacle screwed on to the bottom of a cylinder.

The latter was immediately filled with flame, and the air in it was driven out through leather tubes, which by their expansion acted momentarily as valves.

The piston was forced by the pressure of the atmosphere into the vacuum thus formed. This is the action shown in atmospheric gas engines, but Huygens had difficulty in getting his valves to act properly, and in 1690 Papin attempted to improve upon his principle.

Barber - 1791

For more than 100 years after these early attempts, all the efforts of scientific men and inventors were directed to the study of steam, and its applications to produce power. At that time there was no other known agent that could compete with it. Gas extracted from coal had not yet been applied as a motive force in engines, and experience had shown that explosive powders were too dangerous, and too intermittent in their action, to be used with safety. The first to design and construct an actual gas engine was John Barber, who took out a patent (No. 1833) in 1791.

Barber made the gas required for his engine from wood, coal, oil, or other substances, heated in a retort, from whence the gases obtained were conveyed into a receiver and cooled.

A pump next forced them, mixed in proper proportion with atmospheric air, into a vessel termed the "Exploder". Here they were ignited, and the mixture issued out in a continuous stream of flame against the vanes of a paddle wheel, driving them round with great force.

Water was also injected into the explosive mixture to cool the mouth of the vessel, and, by producing steam, to increase the volume of the charge. Barber's engine exhibits in an elementary form, the principle of what is now known as combustion at constant pressure, but it had neither piston nor cylinder.

Street - 1794

The next engine, invented by Robert Street, and for which he took out a patent (No 1983) in 1794, was a great advance. Inflammable gas was exploded in a cylinder and drove up a piston by its expansion, thus producing the first example of a practical internal combustion engine. The gas was obtained by sprinkling spirits of turpentine or petroleum at the bottom of a cylinder, and evaporating them by a fire beneath.

The up-stroke of the piston admitted a certain quantity of air, which mixed with the inflammable vapour. A flame was next sucked in from a light outside the cylinder, through a valve uncovered by the piston, and forced down the piston of a pump for raising water.

In this engine many modern ideas were foreshadowed, especially the ignition by an external flame, and the admission of air by the suction of the piston during the up-stroke, but mechanical details were crude and imperfect.

Lebon - 1801

A great improvement in the practical application of gas engines was made by Philippe Lebon, a French engineer, who obtained a patent in 1799 and a second in 1801. The first was intended to describe the production of flammable coal gas : in the latter he proposed to utilise this gas to drive a piston in an engine very similar to that designed by Lenoir, sixty years later. The flammable gas and "sufficient air to make it ignite" were introduced separately into the cylinder on both sides of the piston, and the inventor proposed to fire the mixture by an electric spark.

The machine was double acting, and the explosions of gas took place alternately on each side of the piston. The most striking peculiarity of the engine was the piston-rod, working not only the motor shaft, but through it two pumps, in which the gas and air were compressed, before they entered the motor cylinder.

Rev. W. Cecil - 1820

To see more information on the Rev. W. Cecil's Engine, go to The Rev. W. Cecil's Engine page

Samuel Brown - 1823

After Rev. W. Cecil, the next to invent a practical engine was an Englishman, Samuel Brown, who took out two patents, in 1823 and 1826. Brown's gas engines were the first to actually work in London and the neighbourhood.

Wright - 1833

The next improvement in gas motors was the use of a governor to control the speed, introduced by Wright in his vertical double-acting engine, patented in 1833. Wright's engine had one cylinder and piston, and an explosion was obtained alternately at either end of the cylinder. The piston and piston-rod were hollow, and the cylinder had a water jacket to counteract the intense heat of the double explosion. Ignition was obtained by an external flame and a touch hole.

The gas and air were slightly compressed in separate reservoirs, before entering the motor cylinder; their admission was regulated by a centrifugal governor, and the richness of the mixture, or the greater or lesser quantity of gas passing the valve, varied, with the speed.

Barnett - 1838

Five years after Wright, William Barnett, another Englishman, took out a patent for three vertical engines. These engines contained many novel and interesting features. The first had one working cylinder, single-acting. Gas and air were drawn in and compressed by two pumps, passing into a receiver below the motor cylinder, where they were mixed. During the down-stroke of the pumps, while the charge was being forced into the receiver at a pressure of about 25 lbs per square inch, the return stroke of the motor piston discharged the burnt gases through the exhaust. All three pistons moved simultanously up and down. As the motor piston reached the bottom of its stroke, a valve at the side opened communication with the receiver. At the same time, a revolving ignition cock, immediately above the exhaust, fired the mixture issuing from the receiver, and the burning gases entered the motor cylinder through the admission port, and impelled the piston upwards, as the crank passed the dead point.

The conical ignition cock was well designed, and has formed the prototype for many similar arrangements.

Drake - 1843

An ingenious gas engine was exhibited by Dr. Drake at Philadelphia in 1843, the English patent for which was taken out in 1855. In this horizontal engine, ordinary 'lighting gas' was used, mixed with nine or ten times its volume of atmospheric air. Much care was taken to admit the mixture in proper proportions, and the supply of gas was regulated by valves controlled by a governor. The charge entered the cylinder at atmospheric pressure, and was fired by a small tube kept at white heat by an external flame. The force of the explosion drove out the piston, giving a maximum pressure of about 100 lbs per square inch; the mean effective pressure during the stroke, with a speed of 60 revolutions and 20 indicated H.P. (Horse Power), was about 36 lbs per square inch. The cylinder had a water jacket, and the piston was hollow. The engine was afterwards modified, and worked chiefly with petroleum.

Lenoir - 1860

The honour of having invented and introduced the first practical working gas engine belongs generally to Lenoir. His specifications set forth no new features, but he was able, not only to make his engine work but to work rapidly, silently, and, as at first supposed, more economically than using steam. Lenoir took out his patent in France, Jan. 24, 1860 and in England, Feb. 8, 1860. The engines were made by M. Hippolyte Marinoni, a French engineer, whose mechanical skill undoubtedly contributed to their success. During the first year, one was constructed of 6 H.P. and another of 20 H.P., and so great was the demand that, in five years, between three or four hundred motors were made in France, and a hundred in England.

Hugon - 1865

Hugon's vertical engine did not appear till 1862, and he soon abandoned it in favour of a direct-acting engine similar in principle to Lenoir's, which he patented in 1865.

Flame ignition was subsituted for electricity, and a small quantity of water was injected into the cylinder at every stroke. The flame was carried to and fro in a cavity inside a slide valve, and the engine afforded the first practical illustration of this methd of ignition, afterwards generally used. The consumption in gases was still very high, and the engine did not find much favour, even in France.