Harris-Corliss Steam Engine

Harris-Corliss engine

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800 Spring Valley Drive Cumming, Georgia 30131

This story about a piece of metallic history starts off like most of them, by accident. As a newcomer to Atlanta, Georgia, I had started restoration work on a French Morbier grandfather clock. Early into the restoration, I realized that the moldings on this piece would have to be replaced. Easier said than done. After a hundred-fifty years, moldings like these have to be custom made.

After letting my fingers do the walking, I came upon Randall Brothers. This company manufactures custom moldings, doors, windows, etc., perfect for my project. I called and spoke to Jack Spangler about my molding needs, faxed over a side view to scale and was told 'no problem.' Still skeptical about the price (very reasonable!) and their ability to reproduce it accurately in red oak, I took over a sample.

View of the Harris-Corliss engine as it appears today, still at Randall Brothers almost 90 years after it was purchased. From an ASME brochure.

One could tell that the building had been there for a long time. Jack confirmed that Randall Brothers had been in that same location since 1885. So I asked if there was any old wood-cutting equipment back there. He casually mentioned a few molding cutters and an old steam engine with a 13 foot flywheel! (My mind raced frantically to figure out how to tell my wife this steam engine followed me home...) We made a tentative appointment to get a tour of the shop when my molding was ready for pick-up.

A few weeks later I went back and picked up the molding. It was difficult to tell the difference between the old one and the new. Their tooling personnel faithfully reproduced it to the last detail.

Jack then took me back and introduced me to Jim Lowry, Superintendent over manufacturing and operations at Randall Bros. We walked into the shop and saw an old molding cutter and walked through their machine shop area. There is a lathe and drill press still in working order belted to the overhead pulleys. Beyond another door the great steam engine sat, hissing, waiting to be turned up. In another room stand two large boilers. One is used for shop heat but can build up enough pressure to get the old girl turning.

The engine was dedicated as a regional historic mechanical engineering landmark in 1985. Information from the dedication program prepared by ASME for that event reveals the following information.

Sometime during 1977 the old 350 horsepower Harris-Corliss engine at the Randall Brothers Co. was retired from its job as a prime mover for the woodworking plant. Retirement did not come because of the age of the engine, over 80 years, but because of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's concern over the smoke from the boiler smokestacks. The engine was still, and is to this day, in perfect working order.

Because of the EPA concern, the boilers, which had previously been fired by scrap woodchips from the woodworking plant, were converted to oil, but even this did not prove successful. Fuel oil was too expensive and winter supplies are unreliable. In 1977 the Randall Brothers plant switched to grid-supplied electricity.

One of the final jobs for the engine was to run a vacuum system that sucked up sawdust around the old plant, but that job, too, yielded to outside electricity.

The Randall Brothers' engine has been around so long that no one remembers when things happened to the engine or even when it was purchased. According to a brass plaque on the engine, it was built by the William A. Harris Steam Engine Co. of Providence, R.I. Historical records suggest that it was built sometime before 1895, because the engine was exhibited at the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 which took place on the site of what is now Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The engine is typical of the machinery that helped Georgia recover from the effects of the Civil War.

Records from the William A. Harris Steam Engine Co. indicate that Exposition Cotton Mills, Atlanta, Ga., ordered a 350 horsepower engine on April 12, 1898 for delivery on May 16, 1898. This order was filled with the engine that was on exhibit at the 1895 Exposition. Randall Brothers, Inc. purchased the engine from Exposition Cotton Mills sometime between 1898 and 1910. The engine was used on a regular basis to drive an electric generator and to power machinery, including lumber saws, through overhead line shafting. The boilers that supplied the steam were capable of burning wood, coal or gas until converted to fuel oil in the 1970s.

This Harris-Corliss steam engine served the Randall Brothers for more than 75 years. Toward the end of its operation there were some problems finding replacements when parts wore out. When parts needed to be replaced, Randall Brothers simply made them in their own machine shop.

Although no longer in regular use, the steam engine is in its original location at the Randall Brothers plant. It is in outstanding mechanical operating condition, and is regularly available to the public, particularly engineering classes at the Georgia Institute of Technology for whom the boilers are occasionally fired up to show the operation of a classic Corliss steam engine.

The Randall Brothers' Harris-Corliss engine is rated at 350 horsepower at a speed of 90 rpm. The flywheel is 13 feet in diameter with a 25-inch face and the drive belt is approximately 102 feet long. The engine cylinder measures 16 inches in diameter with a 42-inch stroke. The crankshaft diameter is 14 inches. This simple engine operates at a steam pressure of 125 psi.