James Watt Steam Engine

Iowa Club Obtains Historic 1799 Engine


Above: The late Leighton Wilke with the Watt engine in his Hall of Mechanical Evolution.

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Old engine and steam engine buffs can appreciate a really old steam engine. So it was that when Mike Shanks, a member of the Cedar Valley Engine Club, received a phone call asking if the club might be interested in an old stationary steam engine, his questions were: how old and how big?

The Do All Co. in Des Plaines, Ill., a manufacturer of industrial sawing equipment, was in the process of moving from their original plant. An engine collected by the founder of the company, Leighton Wilkie, wasn't slated to be moved to their new location. Yes, the club was interested, but how much would it cost to move it to Charles City, Iowa, and would the acquisition be worth the time, because at this point we had no idea what we were dealing with.

A few weeks later on an early spring day in 2005, six members of the club drove to Des Plaines to see what had been offered to the club. What they found was a 1799 Watt steam engine with an 18-foot flywheel that appeared to be complete - even to the metal railing that had been around it in the textile mill. It was in a large central room of the plant, and was, for its age, in excellent condition. It was mounted on concrete piers with a large overhead wood frame that supported the cast iron beam connecting the piston to the crank. In the plant it had been "run" with an electric motor hidden behind a block wall.

Hmm, now I think we were getting interested.

The engine had been built in 1799 at the Boulten & Watt factory in Birmingham, England, in what is now the Royal Mint. One of the valves is stamped 1797, leading to some question as to the exact date of construction. It was purchased in Frome, England, and taken to Chard, England, in 1827, where it operated the Gifford, Fox & Co. Ltd. textile mill. The magnificent brass governor was added in 1857. The engine was still working in the plant in 1948. Wilkie purchased the engine and had it transported from the plant to Des Plaines in 1958.

According to some of the information we found, this engine is a 60 HP engine initially run on around 5 pounds of steam pressure.


Could the engine be moved again at a cost the club could afford? The four club members first determined that the flywheel could be disassembled into eight sections so it could be transported on the highway. They spent several hours measuring and estimating the weight of various pieces. They were able to report back to the club that the engine could be moved, but it would be prohibitively expensive to hire professional movers. However, it appeared that club members could disassemble and transport it on flatbed trailers of the type they used to move their antique tractors.

A few weeks later after a unanimous vote by the club, 10 club members with four pickups and trailers loaded with tools and cargo straps set out before daylight for Des Plaines. The groups spent three long days and nights dismantling the engine. Parts were loaded onto the four trailers for the trip home. There was clearly a need for a second trip as the remaining pile of parts included the condensers and much of the valving.

Both the trailers and the trucks were heavily loaded. As the convoy came down the long hill to the Mississippi River Bridge, the brakes were smoking, requiring a stop to cool them down. This wasn't the only interesting trip mishap. Arriving late at night at the club's show grounds, the engine parts were unloaded into various buildings for storage until reassembly could begin.

Some weeks later we returned with two of the trucks and trailers to Des Plaines in anticipation of completing the move. The trailers and trucks were loaded, and we headed back to Charles City the same day, but there were still engine parts in Des Plaines.

In addition to the engine the club also obtained a large boring mill used to bore the Watt engine cylinders. It had been powered by a large water wheel.

In 1765 Watt started to develop a method to bore the large cylinders he needed for his steam engine. In 1775 he became acquainted with John Wilkinson, who was known for developing boring mills for cannons. Wilkinson was able to design a mill that would handle the very large cylinder castings. This mill is considered the world's first true machine tool.

Mike and his brother, Howard, returned to Des Plaines for the last load to complete the move of the engine, though the boring machine remained. Late in the evening, with the heavy load on the trailer, a tire blew out about 40 miles from Charles City. Changing it in the dark on a busy road was not an easy task because of the trailer's heavy load. However, a stranger from Arkansas stopped and used his pickup lights to illuminate the wheel, so the job was soon finished and the remainder of the trip was uneventful.


The heavy boring mill, which had been stored outside on the ground, had to wait until late summer when dry weather allowed the use of a large crane to load it on a trailer. With its arrival at the Cedar Valley show grounds near Charles City the move was completed. It's really interesting what can get accomplished when a group of old iron collectors start to put their minds together.

The club already had a large Norberg Corliss compound steam air compressor that came out of the Allis-Chalmers plant in La Porte, Ind., set up in one of the buildings on the club show grounds. It was decided that the building could be expanded so the Watt engine also could be set up. Careful measurements of the concrete piers used in Des Plaines were used as the basis for the new installation, but the height of the piers was raised to better display the engine. Since engine detail drawings do not exist, many photos and notes were taken in Des Plaines as the engine was dismantled as guidance for the reassembly.

The list of members who helped in the relocation of the Watt engine were as follows: Mike Shanks, Howard Shanks, Kelly Barnett, Jason Skillen, Harold Swartzrock, Steve Montag, Steve Smolik, Roland Endelman, Wayne Popp and Larry Bissen.

The opportunity to see the engine for the first time and take it apart to transport it is a time in our lives that won't be forgotten. To see the engine up close is like taking a leap back in time, looking at mechanical ingenuity in its early stages and truly appreciating the effort and thought processes of some great inventors that came before us.

Contact steam enthusiasts Kelly Barnett at: Box 748, Nashua, IA 50658; kpbarnett@rconnect.com

Howard Shanks at: 1429 Clark Ave., Ames, IA 50010; www.cedarvalleyengineclub.com