Farm Collector

The Enduring Corliss Steam Engine

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.

In 1862 the famous Union warship, the U.S.S. Monitor, was being built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard according to the designs of John Ericsson, and it was found that none of the New York factories had the ability to machine the large ring bearing upon which the Monitor’s gun turret was to revolve.

However, the Corliss shop did, so the ring was transported by rail to Providence, where it was finished in a single day, hastily returned to Brooklyn and installed, allowing the Monitor to soon meet the Confederate ironclad Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. While the battle itself was inconclusive (actually the Virginia seemed the winner), it marked the doom of wooden warships.

The steam engines produced by Corliss were popular for many industrial applications in this country and abroad. A number of cotton mills in Scotland imported the engines and a second factory was opened in England; eventually Corliss Engines were found all over the world.

A 1920 history of Rhode Island notes that, at the time of Corliss’ death in 1888, his factory floor area covered some 5 acres and he employed “over a thousand hands,” quite a large manufactory in the 1880s.

Powering the Exposition of 1876

Although George Corliss won many awards all over the world for his engines and valve gear, his finest hour was probably at the Great Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. As the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. coincided with the height of the Industrial Revolution, Expo planners designed a 588,440-square-foot Machinery Hall to spotlight modern machines and new industries, eventually housing some 1,900 exhibitors from all over the world.

Of course all that machinery required power, and lots of it. George Corliss came to the rescue, proposing construction of a giant pair of engines to run the whole shebang! Several prominent engineers of the day insisted the thing wouldn’t work, but Corliss persevered and won the approval, and the financial backing, of the Expo committee.

The double engine he erected in Machinery Hall was huge: more than 40 feet high and weighing some 600 tons, while producing 1,500 hp. Each cylinder had a diameter of 40 inches and a stroke of 10 feet, and each drove a walking beam that was 25 feet long and weighed 11 tons. The 56-ton flywheel made 36 revolutions per minute, was just under 30 feet in diameter and drove a nearly 10-foot pinion gear that weighed 8-1/2 tons. The Corliss engine drove some 5 miles (accounts vary) of overhead line shafting that ran throughout the hall and provided power to an estimated 8,000 machines.

Marvel of Exposition engineering

On opening day for the Expo, many notables were on hand, including U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant and his guest, Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. As the moment for starting the engine approached, the large crowd fell silent; President Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro II each threw a lever. Steam hissed into the cylinders, the floor shook, the flywheel began to slowly turn and the walking beams started to move.

As the engine delivered its power to the line shaft, machinery all through the hall got busy, sewing clothes, printing newspapers, sawing lumber and doing a thousand other jobs. Meanwhile, the lone engine attendant sat in a chair on the platform and read a newspaper!

Corliss’ big engine “that wouldn’t work” ran flawlessly and efficiently throughout the six months of the Exposition and afterward was sold to the George Pullman factory, where it operated for 30 more years.

Many others made improvements to various parts of the Corliss valve gear, but his basic principle remained the same and most of these engines carried the Corliss name as well as that of the maker.

Wonders of a new age

Interestingly, two products that are still produced today – Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root Beer – were introduced at the Expo, as well as Kudzu, a Japanese plant that was then touted as an ornamental shrub and great for erosion control, but today is usually considered a noxious weed.

Other wonderful inventions shown for the first time were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (Emperor Dom Pedro II is said to have picked up the receiver, put it up to his ear and hurriedly dropped it, exclaiming, “It talks!”), Remington’s “typographic machine” (typewriter) and a Wallace-Farmer dynamo that powered several arc lights, and which is said to have inspired Thomas Edison in his work on incandescent lighting.

George Corliss died Feb. 21, 1888, and in 1900 his company was sold to International Power Co. Several further sales and mergers virtually obliterated all traces of Corliss Steam Engine Co., but the Corliss name lives on among steam engine buffs. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at

  • Published on Nov 7, 2017
© Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved - Ogden Publications, Inc.