Woodruff and Beach Steam Engine

Old Woodruff and Beach engine

The old Woodruff and Beach engine before it was moved.

Content Tools

Curator of Industry Henry Ford Museum Dearborn, Michigan 48121

Reprinted from 'Tools & Technology,' quarterly journal of the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont.

Our museum building was constructed in 1846 for the manufacture of 10,000 Model 1841 U.S. Army rifles using only water power. In the course of doing this, they developed the most modern armory and machine shop in the country for precision interchangeable manufacturing. They also began to sell duplicates of the fine machine tools developed for their own use. This called for more power than making small rifle parts. As their business expanded, they found that the water power, always variable in quantity from a steady winter flow to the much reduced flow of mid-summer, interfered with keeping precise delivery dates. The only practical answer in that era was an auxiliary steam engine as a supplement, even though steam power was far more expensive than water power.

Many visitors to the museum inquire how the machinery was driven and about the water power obviously running over the dam. We have no exact date when the original steam engine was installed. A lithograph of 1849 shows no chimney or engine room, however, another lithograph of 1853 shows an engine room, chimney and open wood shed. Wood was the fuel of choice in the area at that time and later; the Central Vermont Railroad only changed to burning coal about 1900. As long as manufacturing continued in our building, until 1884, the fuel was wood and it is said that it was the cost of this fuel that was the major factor in discontinuance of the business. At that time the business was cotton manufacturing, a highly competitive enterprise.

For proper restoration and to meet public interest we have needed a suitable replacement for the original engine. Not many engines with the correct characteristics have survived, but a friend in Connecticut1 brought an engine of suitable age, size, quality, design and plausible origin2 to museum attention in 1982. An exciting feature of the engine found was the identification cast on the engine bed, 'Woodruff and Beach, Hartford, Conn. 1849.' Another wonderful and difficult to find feature was an engine that had a balance or flywheel with a narrow rim not used for a belt to drive the machinery. Instead the power from this engine, as with the original, was transferred from a coupling on the crankshaft to a clutch so that it could be coupled to the water wheel as needed or could also drive the factory alone, as circumstances dictated. The flywheel rim has not been machined and there is no evidence of balancing by the addition or subtraction of weight. Very probably the heavy crank was located on the light side of the wheel as a counter poise. The flywheel and crank, indeed all of the castings, are of excellent quality so the engine exhibits nice foundry work as well as superior skill in machine work.

One of the standard engine sizes made by Woodruff and Beach had a 14' bore and 30' stroke, to which our engine conforms. The maker rated this size of engine at 35 horsepower at 55 revolutions per minute. The steam pressure is not stated, but it is a high pressure engine of its era, perhaps however this amounted to not more than a boiler pressure of 85 pounds per square inch.3 The valve or steam chest extends the full length of the cylinder and is on the side rather than the top. This was a relatively new design at the time with two important features: it simplified the connection between the valve and the eccentric actuating it, and second, and very importantly, it made it easier for condensed water in a cold engine cylinder to escape to the exhaust pipe with much less danger of straining or lifting a cylinder head. The slide valve itself has a separate exhaust port at each end, thus steam was admitted to each end of the cylinder through a very short passage with a minimum loss of heat and pressure. Economy of the exhaust steam was a secondary consideration not much regarded at this time. Low pressure engines, particularly marine engines, did at this time exhaust into a condenser which increased efficiency, but it was chiefly done to reuse the water in oceangoing vessels to keep salt out of the boiler.

By 1855 the Woodruff and Beach engines were made with entirely different valve design, balanced poppet inlet valves and a gridiron slide valve for the exhaust. It is said that at the time this design was introduced the Woodruff and Beach engine was the only one to have a governor controlled automatic cutoff, quick-closing, valve gear, with the exception of the Corliss Engine patented in 1849, which had an entirely different valve gear that had shown much greater fuel economy than plain slide valve engines.4

The inventor of this valve gear, or at least enough of it to contribute some degree of patent protection, was William Wright of Rochester, New York, who was residing in Providence, Rhode Island when he received a patent on a complex rotary engine. Two of the six claims in his patent refer to balanced valves where the steam pressure does not cause friction as in the D type valve used in all but the Corliss engine of four years later. The inlet valves were opened to admit steam at the beginning of each piston stroke, but their closing was determined by the engine speed under governor control in accord with the load on the engine. This responsiveness to load resulted in important fuel economy giving it a competitive advantage over nearly all other engines in the market. The Wright patent does not refer to governor control. Wright held the position of engineer in the Woodruff and Beach organization for some time, but then moved to Newburg, New York where he established an engine factory in his own name. There he made an engine closely similar to that of the Woodruff and Beach engines, but with vertically instead of horizontally oriented inlet valves.

This digression about the improved valve gear is made chiefly to illustrate what a leading maker Woodruff and Beach was in the mid-19th century. 'For several years...among the most extensive in New England for the manufacture of engines and heavy machinery.'5This is the quality of machinery that Robbins and Lawrence would be likely to bring to their ideal factory.

Woodruff and Beach evolved from the small iron foundry of Goodwin, Dodd and Gilbert purchased in 1821 by Alpheus and Truman Hanks and said to have been the first foundry in Connecticut6. This of course would be as distinguished from iron furnaces, where iron was reduced from the ore and where castings were also made. In 1842 Henry Beach began as agent for Truman Hanks, and in 1844 bought out Mr. Hanks, his father-in-law, and was joined by Samuel Woodruff doing business as the Woodruff and Beach Company. In 1853 the name was changed to Woodruff & Beach Iron Works at the time of incorporation with Samuel Woodruff as president. Their engines became noted for the quality of both design and workmanship. At the beginning of the Civil War they greatly expanded their works, including an enlarged foundry with a center and two wings measuring 230 by 63 feet inside and a boiler shop 125 feet long and 60 feet wide. This growth enabled them to build some very large marine engines for U.S. war vessels: the sloops Mohican, Kearsarge, Manitou, Minnetonka and Piscataqua; the gunboats Cayuga, Pequot and Nipsic; the transports Dudley Buck and George C. Collins; and the steam ships America and United States; all for government service7. They had previously built pumping engines, probably all low pressure beam engines, for the cities of Brooklyn, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, and for the U.S. Navy dry docks at Charlestown, Massachusetts and Norfolk, Virginia. They are known also for a beam engine built for the U.S. Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1856 , which saw service as late as the beginning of World War I, and several engines for Colt's armory, one as large as 200 horsepower. The number of engines built for private industry has been lost track of, but the number was large. It has also been stated that they built the engine for the Hartford, Admiral Farragut's flag ship at the battle of Mobile Bay, but this does not appear in the company advertising as engines for other government vessels do, so is probably erroneous.9

Following the Civil War, the engine business seems to have declined, and the corporate name was changed to the Woodruff Iron Works. 'In 1871 the firm ceased to do business, and the boiler department passed to H.B. Beach & Son, who have continued to do a large business. 'In 1870 this firm Woodruff & Beach Iron Works went out of existence. In 1871 the firm of H.B. Beach & Son was organized.'10

Samuel Woodruff lived to 1882, when he was 68 years old, and it would appear from an advertisement of 1874 that the Woodruff Iron Works was very much in business at that time advertising mill work, all kinds of machinery and castings of any size or style. The engine illustrated in this advertisement is a new engine not shown in the advertising as late as 1869. It has a girder bed and is elevated from its foundation on short legs. The valve gear is also different, the intake valves being arranged vertically and operated by a long shaft controlled endwise by the governor. In all an engine of more modern design and appearance, but apparently using the same valves.

Our engine was moved from the site of an old woodworking factory in Deep River, Connecticut to the museum in the early autumn of 1990, and is presently outside waiting for the preparation of the site for it inside.

'The Woodruff Iron Works, known also as the Woodruff & Beach works, stood very high among the makers of heavy and complicated machinery, especially such as required skill and ingenuity in designing.11'

We regret not having information at this time about the outfit of machine tools so necessary to the manufacture of all these complex and high-grade engines.

If anyone knows of the existence of early machines which have been abandoned at their original sites, please contact the American Precision Museum, P.O. Box 679, Windsor, VT 05089, and John Bow-ditch, Curator of Industry, Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI 48121.


1Richard Everett.

2Given to the APM in 1983 by Robert Garthwaite.

3POWER, August 22, 1911, and Woodruff & Beach catalog of gear patterns, 1868, at Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

4No. 4182, issued Sept 9, 1845.

5 A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860, by J. Leander Bishop, Philadelphia, Edward Young & Co., 1864, Vol. II, p. 747.

6 The Memorial History of Hartford County, Connecticut 1633-1884, ed. by J. Hammond Trumbull, Boston, Edward L. Os-good, Publ., 1886, Vol. 1, p. 570.

7Full page illustrated advertisement. Webb's N.E. Railway and Manufacturers Statistical Gazetteer, Providence, 1869, p. 595.

8P0WER, March 7, 1922, Vol. 55, No. 10.

9See Footnote 6.