Past, Present and Future

Steam Engine

Le Grand Skinner with his first Steam Engine in 1868

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Long time regular readers of this magazine will recall the July/August, 1978 article, There Is Coal In Our Future. This pointed out the comforting fact that we have more coal than the Arabs have oil. Later, in the Nov/Dec, 1981 issue, there was the story of The Steam Engine Still Lives On. In the meantime there have been some developments that, although started even earlier, are coming to light now that suggest that coal burning steam engines are looking to a brighter future.

In July, 1983, the Quincy Shipbuilding Division of General Dynamics delivered to New England Electric System the SS ENERGY INDEPENDENCE. This is the first coal burning steamship to have been built since 1929. She is now at sea hauling coal between Hampton Roads and two Massachusetts ports. In August, 1983, the Maritime Commission released a report on the favorable economics of coal burning ships. The report intimates that others are following the route of the ENERGY INDEPENDENCE. In fact, overseas, there are six ships now under construction that will be coal fired. But, more important to the familiar steam engine is the outlook for steam powered Western Rivers towboats powered with one or more reciprocating steam engines. Since the Skinner Engine Company is the only major builder of steam engines today, that puts them in the forefront of this activity. Therefore, it might be interesting to have a brief look at their history.

Le Grand Skinner founded the Skinner Engine Company in 1868. The original manufacturing plant was in Herkimer, New York. Here he built his first line of steam engines. These were mounted atop the associated steam boiler in a manner familiar to those interested in portable engines and traction engines. By 1873 the plant had grown in size and was then moved to its present home city of Erie, Pennsylvania. By 1900, additional space was required at which time the present facility of nine separate buildings was constructed. Actually, with business expanding into other lines, this facility is too small and plans were underway to again expand.

'Grandfather' Le Grand Skinner continued as active head of the company until his death in 1922. Whereupon, Allen Skinner, his son, took over the management.

Marketing of the engines took on a different flavor with the advent of Allen Skinner to the command position. He tended to be more of the marketer than the engineer that typified his father. The product line was of such quality and superior economic advantage over the then competition that his sales approach was to offer to sell a potential customer his engine requirement for $1 plus all of the savings accruing to the installation of a Skinner engine. It sold engines and made money.

Allen Skinner had a son whom he named J. Le Grand Skinner and we find that in 1949 the third generation of Skinner's running the business. Along with him he also had K. W. Van Eman as Vice President and Marine Manager indicating that the manufacture of steam engines for marine use was a major factor in the company business. But also of importance was the Field Service organization. Mr. E. G. Jagernann was one of these fine service engineers who visited Skinner installations to advise valued customers on the operation and maintenance of these engines. Servicing what they sold has been a policy from the beginning and continues even today. This is typified by their buying back a number of old engines as they became available. These are rebuilt and stocked for resale.

SKINNER counter flow steam engine. Note enclosed crank-case and the positive pressure lubricating system. Courtesy Skinner Engine Company.

J. L. Skinner continued to manage the business up until 1963 when it was sold to Dan Richmond. Unfortunately, for Mr. Richmond, he was not to live but for a couple of years after the purchase. With his death, the company was soon to become a part of Banner Industries where it resides today as a profit center in this interesting conglomerate that started out as a hardware jobbing house in 1925.

It is fortunate that Skinner Engine Company did not loose its family oriented atmosphere wherein pride of workmanship is endemic. In 1937, a boy only two years out of high school was looking for a job with Skinner. This was Richard M. Whiting. He has been with them ever since and is now Director of Engineering. He too has a son who he named Richard Dennis Whiting and was influential in getting him to join the company. Today, Dennis is President and so the family tradition carries on. There must be a similar feeling within the Banner company management since 40% of the stock ownership is held by Officers and Directors of the company.

Going back now to the technical side of the company, let us look at the product line past and present. There have been two processes taking place over the years. One was the development of engines and the other the acquisition of competing companies with the view to expand the line. Among these acquisitions was the Ames Iron Works of Oswego, New York. Many of these fine engines are still in operation. In this same program, Skinner acquired the Troy Engine Company. This piston valve engine is available today in sizes up to 200 horsepower. It is gaining favor in third world countries from Haiti to Fiji where they are used in co-generation projects. The waste fuel used runs from coconut husks to peanut shells.

Skinner are probably as well known for their line of marine engines as they are for fixed base units. They introduced the vertical uniflow engine in to the marine trade in 1927. Over the years this line has been improved and expanded to the point where an eight cylinder, 11,000 horsepower, compound engine operating on steam at 775 pounds pressure and superheated to 850 degrees is available.

Currently, the records show that they have built 347 marine engines. Some of the best known installations were in the Mississippi Barge Line towboats the OHIO and the TENNESSEE which were built in 1930. WW II saw 63 harbor tugs powered with Skinner engines. There were sixteen five-cylinder engines installed in Landing Ship Dock (LSD) hulls. Many of these are still in operation. Some were sold to the Argentine after the war. Incidentally, spare part orders were being received during the recent Falkland Islands episode.

Following WW II the steam engine business, particularly the marine field, just about collapsed. At this point Skinner began looking around for other business to occupy their shop facilities. It is interesting to note how pure chance enters into our lives and the lives of businesses. The story goes that one day a man walked into the Erie works office with a roll of drawings under his arm. It seemed that he was in the business of building rubber mixing machines over in Akron. Unfortunately, his plant had been destroyed by fire and he was looking for a shop that could immediately build machines to fill orders then on the books. The Skinner shops stepped into the breach and produced the rubber mixing machines in record time. The association was a profitable one for in a short time the one-man business was hit by the death of the one-man. Skinner bought out the drawings, rights and the total business from his estate. Soon they were able to buy out a portion of the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton pump line and eventually the complete line. Becoming a subsidiary of Banner Industries brought them into other lines of business some of which came from the Patterson Industries acquisition by Banner in 1968. After assimilating the portion best suited to their facilities, Patterson was spun-off in 1963.

In recent years there have been several developments that again give the reciprocating steam engine renewed life and an improved outlook. One of these is the relative cost between oil, either diesel or heavy oil, and coal. On a cents per million BTU basis, diesel is now over three times the cost of coal. And, it is approaching that for the heavy fuel used in steam boilers. Since a diesel cycle is incapable of handling coal as a solid fuel it is eliminated in coal cycle considerations. It remains necessary to go through the steam phase in getting the heat energy from the coal fuel to the work area. Furthermore, oil is resource limited even on a world wide basis and coal is market demand limited. Thus, in the future, coal price is going to remain relatively constant compared to oil.

One of the factors putting the steam engine to a disadvantage in high efficiency service was the lube oil in the exhaust steam. This created problems in recycling the condensate back to the boiler. However, there have been some recent developments in this area that have all but eliminated this as a problem. It is the 'timed cylinder lubrication' system. In this system the engine is provided with a crosshead driven reciprocating oil pump. Oil under pressure is admitted to the piston ring groove through internal passages on the shaft and rod so that only an extremely thin film of oil adheres to the cylinder wall. There is virtually no oil in the exhaust steam as compared to injecting the oil with the live steam. What little there is can be removed by a diatomaceous earth filter. With such a system, it is possible to also pipe oil to all bearing surfaces for constant positive pressure lubrication.

Lube oil breakdown temperature limits have also been instrumental in keeping steam conditions lower than those that can be achieved with a steam turbine with its external bearings. However, with the advent of high temperature synthetic lube oils developed for the aircraft jet engine and with the timed system it has been possible to achieve steam temperatures up to 850 degrees F. Although land based steam power plants operate at 2400 pounds pressure and 1,000 degrees, turbine ships are generally limited to 900 pound 900 degrees. Or, essentially the same as for the multi-cylinder compound steam engine.

How then does one go about making the choice between a steam turbine and a steam engine? Actually, it turns out that they both have their respective fields. One is high speed (up to 5500 rpm) and the other is basically a slow speed machine of not more than 120 rpm in the very large sizes. The turbine is best suited to continuous full load operation while the steam engine actually has improved efficiency at part load compared to full load so it is suited to variable load service. Best of all, it is reversible. In services requiring reversing capability, the turbine is at a disadvantage since reversing capability is provided by a second machine of only enough power to handle the reverse load.

It is this latter factor that presents the bright future in towboat service on long haul assignments as in the Western River System. Studies are being made to see just where the present day machines can fit into this service. Skinner Engine Company has a bright future ahead.