The Enduring Corliss Steam Engine

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

| December 2017

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.