We all know the fictional story of 'the little engine that could' but there are also many stories of the engines that 'couldn't', too.
One of these is a factual article about the invention of a rotary steam turbine engine by Samuel Gibson, of Safe Harbor, Pa. It was written by Donald J. Summar, of Lancaster, and published in the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society, vol. 81, No. 2.
Gibson in some ways was ahead of his time. He applied for and received his first patent in 1870. He designed what he called a centrifugal rotary steam engine after he read about the reaction turbine made by Hero of Alexandria in the first century of the Christian era, Summar relates.
'In the Gibson rotary engine,' Summar states, 'steam was piped from a boiler to a hollow cylinder in the hub of the rotary wheel. The casing of the wheel was hollow and a series of buckets were cut on the inside circumference of the casing. Two tubes, opposite one another, directed steam from the stationary hub cylinder to the buckets in the movable wheel to provide rotary motion. The tubes were arranged so that the end of one tube was against a bucket while the end of the other was between two buckets, to give constant alternating power. Gibson claimed as new the combination of the wheel with its hollow casing and buckets, stationary steam tubes and hub cylinder, and tube heads.'
Tragedy marked a test on Dec. 10. With eight men present, 'the revolving wheel burst with a loud report, breaking the solid rim of the engine, and hurtling the fragments with great violence.' The inventor was gashed on the forehead, struck on the instep and knocked down. The man who built the engine was more severely injured and never recovered, dying two years later.
Gibson obtained another patient, and had a new engine made but got a really successful test.
Summar concludes that 'Gibson's basic design resulted in an engine too powerful to run machinery and obviously too powerful to withstand the centrifugal force it created.' It needed more work than could be financed in Lancaster at that time, and even if perfected would not have found a profitable market. Summar notes:
'Such a market did not exist prior to the early 1880's, when Thomas A. Edison opened central stations for incandescent lighting in New York City (1882) and Sunbury, Pennsylvania (1883). When such stations were opened throughout the country, the dynamos were powered by the ubiquitous reciprocating steam engine.'
To get a copy, send $1.50 plus 25 cents for handling and mailing to Lancaster County Historical Society, 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, Pa. 17603.