By the Way

Tennessee-Kentucky Thresherman's Association Show

Two shots taken at the Tennessee-Kentucky Thresherman's Association Show in July 1972. Courtesy of J. A. Miller, Route 1, Russellville, Kentucky 42276.

J. A. Miller

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We thank Mr. and Mrs. E. Thos. Hastings of The Journal newspaper, Fort Recovery, Ohio 45846 for permission to use the picture and article from their November 26, 1970 paper.

We also thank Bob Cotner, Assistant Professor in Department of English at Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland 20850, for his permission to use this writing on the Corliss. We feel sure our readers will be interested as it is good history and all steam.

Mr. William T. Richards, R. D. 2, Granville, Ohio 43023 did all the corresponding and sent us the article to him we are also appreciative.

PROVIDENCE, R. I. Few people today have heard of the name George Henry Corliss. But a hundred years ago the name Corliss was as familiar to Americans as the name Westinghouse is to them today.

In 1870 George H. Corliss owned and operated the largest industrial plant on the East coast, located here in Providence, R. I. The Corliss Steam Engine Co. itself consisted of nine buildings that stretched along the Moshassuck River and was served by both railroad and river traffic. Corliss had become involved in steam engine building in 1847, when the company capital was valued at $36,767.26. He built the company on the strength of his personal integrity and the success of his improvements to the common industrial steam engine, to be worth $295,323.07 by the 1860's.

It was during the 1860's that Corliss was called upon by the War Department of Washington to cast the turret for the iron-clad warship, 'The Monitor'. But it was for his improvement to the steam engine, the major source of all motive power in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that Corliss achieved his reputation and fortune. He received more than 70 patents for improvements to the stationary steam engine, and, when his patents became public property in 1870, manufacturers around the world began producing 'Corliss' steam engines. Volume 21 (1768) of Engineering (London) alone carried articles on four different Corliss engines, each built in different countries and only one built by Corliss himself.

In 1870, George Corliss was six years away from what many would consider his crowning achievement. As a member of the Centennial Commission from Rhode Island, appointed by President Grant, Corliss offered to provide the motive power for the largest exhibition hall of the 1876 Centennial, Machinery Hall. This hall, which when built, covered 14 acres of Fairmont Park, Philadelphia, housed the most sophisticated machinery that had ever been assembled under one roof. It was this display, particularly those machines of American creators, that set the course toward technology and mechanization into which we have lunged with such dubious success in the last century of national life. And the achievement of George Corliss, Providence industrialist and enterpreneur, more than any other display made the Centennial crowds gape.

The irony of the Corliss entry was that it was the one piece of working machinery in the hall. All others were display machines; but Corliss' machine was the spellbinder. The estimates had been made that it would take 1,400 hp to power the 14 acres of machinery. Several Commissioners had proposed that five to eight small steam engines should be used in strategic locations throughout the hall to provide motive power. But Corliss proposed one grand machine that would be, in his words, 'the most perfect and commanding exhibit.'

And such his machine was. It stood 40 feet tall, weighed 700 tons, and developed with grace and nearly silent efficiency the necessary 1,400 hp. Every publication in the land covering the Centennial observed the Corliss Centennial Engine. Engineering (London) called it 'a grand mechanical monument'. French sculptor Bartholdi wrote that it was so graceful in operation as to have 'the beauty, and almost the grace of the human form.' Another publication personified it as 'a veritable King among machinery'. And the Providence Daily Journal noted that 'Rhode Island holds a distinguished position in the Centennial Exhibition, on account of that huge and powerful machine of Mr. Corliss.'

The engine ran during the six months of the Exposition, six days a week, delivering 4,400 hp daily without a hitch or flaw. It consumed 25 to 30 tons of coal a day; its flywheel made 2,355,000 revolutions during the six months, traveling 260 miles a day, or 40,147 miles for the entire Centennial Exhibition. It was, as a modern observer has said, 'little short of the eighth wonder of the world'.

So popular was the Corliss Centennial Engine that the Pullman Company bought the machine from Corliss to power its car works in Pullman, Illinois, where the engine was a showpiece past which guided tours were conducted daily. In 1910 the Corliss Centennial Engine was dismantled and sold for scrap at $10.95 a ton. The blueprints are now owned by the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology, and talk persists of rebuilding Mr. Corliss' monstrous wonder for the 1976 Bi-Centennial, although cost will no doubt be prohibitive.

While his huge walking-beam engine was a dinosaur, the contribution of Corliss to American industry and to his nation's glory in 1876 is not diminished; just forgotten. He still stands, as was said of him in 1912, second to James Watt 'as a factor in bringing the engine to its present state of efficiency.' In Providence, all that remains on the site of the Corliss' plant to remind one of Corliss is a street named 'Corliss.' The Corliss home, an exquisite house designed and built by Corliss in 1880, eight years before his death, yet stands within the environs of Brown University, the present owner.