1895 Rider-Ericsson Hot-Air Pumping Engine

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

| August 1999

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    Steve Gray's century-old Rider-Ericsson gleamed in the sun at a recent show in California. he knows little of the engine's background, other than that its previous owner had it for about 30 years. "This one quite likely was used originally on the East coast," he says.
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    This 1911 Waterloo Boy 1-1/2 hp engine is one of Steve's favorites. This model, he says, was only produced for one year, after which it was changed slightly and re-rated to 2 hp.
  • FC_V2_I1_Aug_1999_04-2.jpg
    The only difference between Steve's model Rider-Ericsson and the full-size engine is the legs. The model represents the use of ornate cast iron legs that were usually seen on the full-size engine. Steve's engine, though, has simpler cast steel legs, better for transporting the engine to shows.

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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.”