1895 Rider-Ericsson Hot-Air Pumping Engine

Collector stumbles upon rare century-old Sterling cycle engine designed to pump water

| August 1999

In its day, the Stirling cycle engine must have seemed the wave of the future.

Dating to 1816, the Stirling design offered a safe, steady source of power. But by the turn of the century, the hot-air engine’s days were numbered.

“I’m guessing there were 30,000 to 40,000 built originally,” says collector Steve Gray, who lives in California. “Actually, for a short time, say 1880 to 1900, they were fairly popular. By 1900, though, gas engines were becoming more popular because they had a lot more horsepower.”

Steve’s engine collection includes a rare Stirling cycle, Rider-Ericsson hot-air pumping engine dating from about 1895. Designed strictly to pump water, the engine was built to be placed next to a well or a cistern with the pump suction pipe hanging down into the water. During operation, the water the engine is pumping is also used to cool the engine: Before water is discharged from the engine, it passes through a water jacket at the upper end of the cylinder.

“The Rider-Ericsson had very little usable horsepower,” Steve says. “As I understand it, they were originally designed to compete against the steam engine, but it took an immense engine to produce usable horsepower.”

His Rider-Ericsson (made in New York; serial number 12704) has a 6-inch bore, 3-inch stroke, and generates approximately one-eighth to one-quarter horsepower at 100 rpm. The engine weighs about 625 pounds.

Steve was visiting a collector friend of his father’s, trading engines, when he saw a curve spoke flywheel in a corner of the garage. He didn’t know much about Stirling cycle engines at the time, but he knew enough – even as a novice collector – to know he was looking at something special.

“This was in 1993 or ’94, but I knew enough by then to know that a curve spoke flywheel was an early engine, pre-1900,” he says. “He told me what it was, and I was familiar with the name, but I’d never seen a full-size, original engine: I’d only seen models.”