Early Steam information in the Library at Ford Museum

Erie Engine Works

Erie Engine Works, Catalogue of Erie Engine Works, successors to Cleveland & Hardwick, Erie, Pennsylvania Catalogue for 1901. Courtesy of The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan.

Henry Ford

Content Tools

Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania 17022

Jerome Irving Smith, chief librarian of the Robert Hudson Tannahill Research Library of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has written an informative pamphlet about the library.

The booklet lists the library's eight major divisions, explains the reasons for them, points out items of note in them, and names collectors whose material the library has acquired.

The divisions are: reference library; manuscript collection; American business archives; records and inventories; rare books; prints, maps, music sheets, broadsides and frakturs; photographic collection; colonial and continental paper currency and stamp collection; and newspaper collection.

In the reference library are more than 100,000 pieces of material for research. Reference tools furnish background history of the United States in various fields including agriculture, transportation, commerce and inventions.

The library business archives section has a collection of original records and correspondence, gathered by Henry Ford, of firms which manufactured mechanical equipment. In addition to Ford's collection, the library has acquired other records, including those of an early automaker, the Winton Carriage Company.

The rare books section of the library is probably of considerable interest to Iron Men readers. In this department are trade catalogues covering the production by American firms of everything to do with farms, gardens, dairying, factories, industrial needs and homes from the 18th to the 20th centuries.

Among firms represented by catalogues are: The Alberger Pump and Condenser Company, The Ames Iron Works, Armington and Sims Engine Company, Atlas Engine Works, Aultman and Taylor Machinery Company, Avery Company, A. D. Baker Company, Ball Engine Company, Birdsall Company, Chandler and Taylor Company, Erie City Iron Works, Fischer Foundry and Machine Company, Fitchburg Steam Engine Company, Frick Company, Gaar Scott and Company, Ideal Gas Engine Company, Manchester Locomotive Works, Novo Engine Company, Reeves Engine Company, Trenton Engine Company, Watertown Engine Company and Westinghouse Machine Company. This is just a partial list.

Smith notes that this rare book section includes European books which influenced the development of American industries, and books, souvenir booklets and memorabilia about most of the World's Fairs from 1851 through 1939.

Of particular interest to our readers could be the famous Newcomen 'atmospheric' or 'beam' engine which is exhibited in the museum.

Thomas Newcomen lived from 1663 to 1729. A blacksmith and iron merchant of Dartmouth, England, he built a model of his engine about 1705. In this engine, a piston was moved by atmospheric pressure in a cylinder in which a vacuum had been created by the use of cooling water to condense steam.

At first, water cooled the outside of the cylinder to produce steam. The value of an internal spray was discovered when water accidentally leaked on top of the piston.

This is how Newcomen's engine worked. Boiler-generated steam was admitted to a cylinder. A counter-balanced beam raised a piston and rod at one end of the beam and lowered a pump rod at the other. A spray was ejected into the cylinder, condensing trapped steam and making a partial vacuum. The difference between the lower pressure inside the cylinder and the atmospheric pressure on top of the piston pushed the piston which actuated the beam and raised the pump rod. 

At first, the valves were operated by hand. Newcomen's helper supposedly figured out an automatic system using cords, later replaced by tappet rods. References give the helper's name as either Henry or Humphrey Potter, a lad who apparently preferred fishing to opening and closing valves. The story goes that Potter thought of an attachment that he called a 'scoggin,' which, when connected to the beam, tripped the valve at the end of the stroke, allowing the engine to work while he went off to the creek. So, was born the first automatic valve action.

Thomas Savery, also an Englishman, had patented an engine in 1698. Newcomen agreed to build engines of his own design using the Savery patent. The most famous Newcomen-Savery engine was erected in 1712 at Dudley Castle.

Smith's description of the prints, maps, music sheets, broadsides and frakturs division of the library is most illuminating.

American history is illustrated by woodcuts, engravings, lithographs and chromolithographs. Over 2,000 bookplates represent famous engravers and prominent users. There is a small but select map collection, including the first published map of the Western Hemisphere made by Sebastian Munster in 1550 in Basle, Switzerland, and a cartograph of Herman Moll with a view of Niagara Falls and of beavers building a dam below it 

The Research Library is a memorial to Robert Hudson Tannahill, who served as a trustee of Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. He also served as honorary curator of American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Tannahill is described as having a great love of American art and artifacts.

Tannahill would have liked Smith's pamphlet, which is, in truth, a 'little gem.' As the author describes the library he at the same time gives us a picture of the development of America, its origins and its history. The booklet is well-organized, understandable and splendidly illustrated. It can be purchased for $1.40, postage prepaid and can be ordered through Earl Hartman, Merchandising Department, Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum. 

Photograph of the atmospheric steam engine, 'Fairbottom Bob,' taken in the 1860's at the original site near Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, England. This is the earliest known form of steam-operated reciprocating engine and the forerunner of every type of engine using a piston and connecting rod assembly. It was invented by Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger of Dartmouth, England, and was given to Henry Ford in 1928 by the Earl of Stamford. It is exhibited in the Henry Ford Museum with a 'haystack' wrought iron boiler of the same period.

The Research Library is used, of course, by Museum staff members. Research workers, accredited students and 'friends' of the museum may be served by appointment.

Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, corporately known as the Edison Institute, all began with the search for a McGuffey's Reader. One thing led to another and well it did, for a knowledge of the past is

vital to an understanding of the present. Smith's pamphlet is vital to an understanding of the operation of the Robert Hudson Tannahill Research Library.

References checked for information about Thomas Newcomen and his engine were Encyclopedia International, vols. 13 and 17, and Encyclopedia America, vol. 15.