The Enduring Corliss Steam Engine

The Corliss name can be found on many engines, and there’s an interesting reason why.

| December 2017

  • George H. Corliss.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A contemporary woodcut of the Corliss Centennial engine as set up in Machinery Hall.
    Photo by Appleton’s 1885 Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics.
  • A Bates-Corliss horizontal engine. The Corliss valve gear can be seen on the side of the cylinder at the right of the engraving. Note the two round dash-pots on the base beside the cylinder supports.
    Photo by Appleton’s 1885 Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics
  • A factory drawing showing the adjustable rods and wrist plate of a Corliss valve gear. The eccentric rod H from an eccentric on the engine crankshaft provides a continuous oscillating motion to the wrist plate E. The steam rods L and M trip the steam valves C and D in turn, at a point determined by the governor cam rods A and B, while closing the opposite exhaust valves F and G by exhaust rods N and O. As each steam valve is tripped, it is quickly closed by weights on the dash-pot rods J and K and their associated dash-pots to cushion the shock. In case the governor belt should break, potentially causing a runaway and a wrecked engine, the governor mechanism closes both steam valves, stopping the engine.
    Photo by Appleton’s 1885 Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics
  • A sectional view of a Corliss double-acting steam cylinder. The two steam inlet valves are at the top and the exhaust valves are at the bottom. Incoming steam is let into the cylinder through valve A (valve B is closed), forcing the piston P to the right and expelling spent steam through valve D (valve C is closed). On the next cycle the incoming steam is admitted through the now open valve B (valve A has closed), and expelled through now open valve C (valve D has closed).
    Photo by Appleton’s 1885 Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics

In my travels to various steam shows over the past 25 or 30 years, I’ve often seen large stationary steam engines (usually at shows that have their own permanent grounds) with the name “Corliss” on them.

I never thought much about what that name meant until Farm Collector Editor Leslie C. McManus asked me about it. There’s a very good reason so many engines made by various manufacturers bear the name Corliss tacked on behind the builder’s name, and it’s an interesting story.

George Henry Corliss was born in Easton, New York, on June 2, 1817. His father was a doctor and moved the family to Greenwich, New York, where George attended school and then worked as a clerk in a cotton factory before going to Castleton Academy in Vermont for three years. In 1838 he opened a general store in Greenwich.

Corliss found himself more and more interested in solving mechanical problems and invented a machine to sew leather shoes and harness, although he had no money to develop his invention. Undeterred, Corliss, who had also been thinking about the inefficiency of the steam engines of the day, moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in 1844 and went to work as a draftsman for Bancroft, Nightingale & Co., a manufacturer of steam engines and boilers.    

There he developed rotary intake and exhaust valves that could be set to operate variably and allowed steam to quickly pressurize a piston, moving it back and forth before the steam could condense. He also created a governor-controlled wrist plate that would control the steam and exhaust valves separately from each other, unlike the common slide valves in use at the time. His variable valves reduced wasted heat and allowed the engine to operate with more uniform motion, while lowering fuel costs. By 1848, Corliss had become a partner in the firm and felt the improved engine was ready for prime time, so manufacture of what was to evolve into the Corliss engine began.

Equipping the Monitor for battle

In 1857 the engine had become so popular that the company was renamed Corliss Steam Engine Co., although George continued to refine his engine. By 1859, all of the key features of the Corliss engines we see today were in place.


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