Norbeck Research 117 N. Ruch Street, #8 Coplay, Pennsylvania
The 20th Century engine shown on this month’s cover, a 16
HP, is owned by Michael J. Miller of Rock-wood, Pennsylvania. I
took the photograph during the Farmers’ and Threshermen’s
Jubilee in New Centerville, Pennsylvania. The following article
will tell you a little more about the 20th Century, both in general
and about this engine specifically.
First, information about the company, taken from my book,
Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines:
The 20th Century steam traction engines were designed and built
by a Mennonite minister, the Rev. Miller of Boynton, Pennsylvania.
The company was first called the Improved Traction Engine Company,
formerly of Elk Lick, Pennsylvania. The name was later changed to
the 20th Century Manufacturing Company. Rev. Miller’s engines
were known as the 20th Century. The company built one of the
strongest, most economical, most durable, best designed and
constructed double-cylinder engines on the market, so they said.
The double-cylinder steam traction engine had all the advantages
over a single-cylinder traction engine that a double-cylinder
railroad locomotive had over a single-cylinder railroad locomotive.
The double-cylinder engine had no dead center, and would start when
the throttle was opened. Not so with the single-cylinder engine.
The company said that its engines were simple and did not require
any more care than a single-cylinder engine.
All of the steam traction engines and rollers were built with
steel gearing throughout. Steel gearing, it was claimed, would wear
five times as long as cast iron. The engines used the Miller
patented boilers. The frame on which the engine and all machinery
was mounted was of steel ‘I’ beams.
20th Century 16 HP built in 1911. Owned by Michael J. Miller of
Rockwood, Pennsylvania, and seen here at the Farmers’ and
Threshermen’s Jubilee, New Centerville, Pa. Photo by Jack C.
Norbeck, Norbeck Research, Co-play, PA 18037-1712.
The drivers were built with crucible steel hubs, solid steel
spokes and boiler plate rims. The axles were made of steel, with a
long bearing in the wheels. The reverse was simple and durable,
using only one eccentric to each cylinder.
They found by actual tests, and also have numerous reports of
users of the engines, in which all agree that their special
‘V’ shaped cleat was superior to any cleat thus far
designed for heavy hauling and slippery roads. This cleat was
always fitted unless otherwise specified.
The valve was balanced by means of a wedge on the bank and
equalizing holes through the valve length wise. It was adjusted
from the outside of the steam chest lid. The engines were built
with one or two flywheels as desired. On the single flywheel
engines, there was one center crank and one disc crank. On the
double flywheel engine, one on each side, the crankshaft was made
from a solid machine steel forging with balls set at right angles.
This was called a double-throw center crankshaft. It rested in a
crank hanger with four bearings. Two of the bearings were 8 inches,
and two were inch. One bearing was on each side of each ball, with
the flywheels just outside the bearings, making this the most
substantial shaft on any engine manufactured. The shaft was two
inches in diameter, with all corners turned round.
The water tank was a large size for the engine. It was placed on
the left side between the boiler and the drive wheel. The platform
was simply an extension of the ‘I’ beams of the frame. The
gearings were all attached to the frame of the engine, and not to
any brackets from the boiler.
The front carriage was a very important feature on an
under-mounted engine of this type. The carriage was placed under
the boiler, giving an advantage in making short turns. There was
plenty of room to swing the carriage, as either front wheel could
raise thirty inches without coming in contact with the frame. This
was accomplished by means of a king-post and yoke. The front end of
all the traction engines was spring-mounted. The engine was
basically built on the principle of a railroad locomotive.
Promotional literature such as catalogs and manuals distributed
by the 20th Century Manufacturing Company, much of which Clark
Brocht has in his personal collection, uses glowing terms in
describing the engines’ various features.
‘The steering wheel is conveniently placed to be operated by
the engineer. This also applies when the special friction or steam
steering device is ordered.’
‘Open cabs are built on all steam rollers, unless otherwise
specified. Front and rear rollers produce a smooth rolled roadbed
width of 8 feet 4 inches.’
Special heavy steel spikes or scarifiers are bolted to and
through their large cast steel steam roller rims for the purpose of
tearing up the defective roadway, and at the same time, the
attached grader immediately following places the torn-up material
in the proper place, thereby preparing the roadway for its final
heavy crowned rolling, which thereby completes the road with ample
The governor is of the fly ball type and very sensitive. It is
placed between the engine and close to the cylinders.
‘The smokebox is separately made of extra heavy rolled sheet
iron and well riveted. One end is then bolted to the flange of the
boiler, which circles the flue head. A cast-iron door frame is then
bolted to the front end, thereby completing the smokebox. The
smokebox door also serves as a damper to check or regulate the
draft as desired, and which can be operated with a lever from the
engineer’s station. The difficulty of replacing the smokeboxes
is practically overcome by simply removing the connecting bolts and
slipping off the old box and replacing it with a new one.’
‘The ash pan is made of heavy iron with a damper door
immediately under the firebox opening; also,’ a sliding door is
fitted in the bottom of the ash pan for the purpose of dropping the
ashes, the latter being easily operated through the damper door
‘The front coupling is part of the well-braced I-beam steel
frame that permits the operator to use it for pushing, or placing
the machine as desired. A coupling is also attached to the bumper
in the rear.’
‘The steel I-beam frame is made of two six-inch steel beams,
shaped and fitted so as to permit the front wheels to turn under
the sides of the boiler, thereby allowing short turns to be made.
Immediately back of and where said wheels would touch the rollers
on said frame, sufficient curvature to the beam is given, which
permits the proper installation of the engine, boiler and water
tank. This rigid and strong foundation prevents racking of the
machinery and boiler. The rollers, above mentioned, prevent the
wheels from cramping or cutting into the frame I-beam.’
‘The spring-mounted 20th Century engine uses heavy steel
coiled springs.’ They are conveniently placed under the rear
axle, and they, in combination with the front heavy steel coil
spring which rests on the socket block of the king-post, carry the
entire frame with its equipment. The entire equipment riding on the
springs eliminates the shock and jar which naturally would loosen
joints, bolts, rivets, etc., on any engine not spring-mounted. It
also gives much comfort and is highly appreciated by all users of
the spring-mounted engines when traveling over the roads.
‘The safety brake is correctly named, as it insures safe
traveling. It is simple and effective. The foot-lever is within
reach of the engineer and is as convenient as the brake on an
automobile. The engine can be brought to a standstill on a grade at
any place desired.’
20th Century 16 HP built in 1911. Owned by Michael J. Miller of
Rock wood, Pa., at Farmers’ & Threshermen’s Jubilee,
New Centerville, Pa. Clark Brocht is at the wheel. Photo by Jack
The literature goes on to note that the rear revolving axles on
all 20th Century engines were equipped with large solid steel
revolving axles. The axle was encased in a steel housing carrying
long heavy brass bearings in the ends of the housings through which
the revolving axle turned. This method prevented the wheel hubs
from cutting out, as well as the springing, like the short stub
axle. It kept the wheels in alignment and prevented pinching the
gears. Many years of experience and records of the above type of
axle showed that they never had a broken or twisted axle to
The engine wheels were made from heavy steel plate. The cast
steel hubs were bored to fit the revolving axle, and having slots
cast thereon to receive the steel spokes which are both drilled and
riveted. These spokes were especially reinforced at the angle where
they rested against and were riveted to the heavy steel outer rims.
The inner end of the hub was turned to allow the master wheel to be
placed thereon, after which the ends of the heavy steel braces were
fastened to the outer edge of the master wheel, and the braces were
placed angling and then bolted to the inside of the rim of the
traction wheel. A strong point to take into consideration was that
the rim of the traction wheel, by means of the rim braces, set on
angle. The spokes, however, performed the same duty as those of any
Other claims and features highlighted:
‘The band wheel is on the same side of the engine as the
steering wheel. It does not interfere with the view of the road.
The shaft also extends out far enough on the opposite side to
permit the band wheel to be placed there if desired. This also
makes it convenient to line up to the machinery.’
‘The engine shaft is made of a solid steel forging without
any square cut corners, and has two center cranks on their
double-speed traction and road-roller engines. On the single-speed,
however, there is one center crank and one disc; both designs of
shaft crank are set at right angles, thus creating NO DEAD CENTER,
and making one of the most important features. Close to the
bearings carrying that shaft, steel-cut drive pinions are placed,
which should effectively last the life of the engine.’
‘The cylinders of the engine are bolted to the ends of the
steel Corliss slides.’ Said slides are bolted to the cast steel
engine frame. All of the aforesaid cylinders, slides, and frame
having been properly machined brings a perfect alignment. All
cylinders are jacked for the purpose of retaining the heat units.
The cylinder cocks, which are used for draining, are specially made
for this purpose and are operated from the cab of the engine.
‘The engine uses a high-pressure patented boiler. It is the
very essence of the firebox type boiler construction. It is far
superior to the old line type for many reasons.’ The water
space being so well and evenly distributed within the boiler and
around the charcoal iron tubes and firebox shell, through which the
heat units are delivered to the water, causes steam to be produced
very rapidly, consequently we do not need as large a boiler as
those of other construction with the greater water spaces; as the
larger water space around the fire box, also the larger spaces
between the shell and around the tubes, the more heat units are
required to produce the same number of pounds of steam than our
20th Century boiler will produce with less heat units, which means
a great saving of fuel. Therefore, by this ingenious construction
we are able to produce a much smaller and lighter weight than any
other ‘Jumbo’ boiler on the market at that time. Remember
the story of David and Goliath! Was David not ridiculed as to his
size against the great and invincible giant? Moral: the small one
overcame the greater one.
‘Investigate before purchasing and get wise. We jacket all
of our boilers, first with asbestos, magnesia or heavy felt, then
covered with aluminum, which will not corrode, and is lasting. It
will also save the heat units which means money to the user. This
covering adds much to the appearance of the boiler and engine. All
boiler plates are tested from 55,000 to 60,000 pounds to the square
inch tensile strength. A soft plug is placed at the highest point
in the crown sheet of the firebox in all of our boilers. Our
boilers will produce more horsepower per square-inch of heating
surface than any other boiler on the market.’
The 20th Century Manufacturing Company made the following: the
double-cylinder under-mounted steam traction engines, portable
engines, steam rollers, and the 20th Century Champion grain
In May 1919, Mr. Wilson E. Walker was running the 20th Century
engine, which he owned (the one on the front cover), and came to
his death in a most sudden and agonizing manner that day. In his
obituary in the Meyersdale Republican newspaper, we read:
The accident that brought to a tragic end the life of this
splendid mail occurred about half-past three o’clock, Friday
afternoon, at the farm home of his son-in-law, Norman Hay, the
Silas Walker farm about four miles north of Meyersdale, the farm
upon which the victim of the accident spent his youth and upon
which his aged parents, Mr. and Mrs. Silas Walker, lived.
While helping his son-in-law to bale hay, Mr. Walker had the
misfortune to get caught in the rapidly revolving flywheel of the
steam traction engine that was furnishing the motive power to the
baling machine and his body was so torn and mangled that death
ensued almost immediately after he was released from the wheel.
Mr. Walker, who was running the engine, was considered an expert
in the handling of all kinds of farm machinery. He had, however,
never had any experience with this type of traction engine which he
had recently purchased. It is thought he was engaged in oiling the
engine and that some part of his clothing got caught by some
projection on the revolving flywheel and that his whole body was
instantly drawn into the wheel and whirled around with frightful
His son, Edward, was feeding the hay press and knew nothing of
his father’s peril until he happened to look around and saw the
revolving body. He ran to the engine at once, shut off the power,
whereupon the mangled form of Mr. Walker fell to the ground.
Although both legs were severed at the knees, his entrails torn
out, his chest crushed, his arms broken and the back of his head
caved in, he was still alive and conscious.
‘What has happened?’ inquired the horrified son. ‘I
don’t know. I got caught in the wheel and am all in.’ These
were his last words in substance. He expired after gasping feebly
these few words.
The oil can was found lying underneath the flywheel, indicating
that he was engaged in oiling the engine when the fatal contact
His son-in-law, Norman Hay, and a farm hand were also working
near the baler when the accident occurred, but it was over before
they noticed anything was wrong.