Farm Collector

By the Way

We thank Mr. and Mrs. E. Thos. Hastings of The Journal
newspaper, Fort Recovery, Ohio 45846 for permission to use the
picture and article from their November 26, 1970 paper.

We also thank Bob Cotner, Assistant Professor in Department of
English at Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland 20850, for his
permission to use this writing on the Corliss. We feel sure our
readers will be interested as it is good history and all steam.

Mr. William T. Richards, R. D. 2, Granville, Ohio 43023 did all
the corresponding and sent us the article to him we are also

PROVIDENCE, R. I. Few people today have heard of the name George
Henry Corliss. But a hundred years ago the name Corliss was as
familiar to Americans as the name Westinghouse is to them

In 1870 George H. Corliss owned and operated the largest
industrial plant on the East coast, located here in Providence, R.
I. The Corliss Steam Engine Co. itself consisted of nine buildings
that stretched along the Moshassuck River and was served by both
railroad and river traffic. Corliss had become involved in steam
engine building in 1847, when the company capital was valued at
$36,767.26. He built the company on the strength of his personal
integrity and the success of his improvements to the common
industrial steam engine, to be worth $295,323.07 by the

It was during the 1860’s that Corliss was called upon by the
War Department of Washington to cast the turret for the iron-clad
warship, ‘The Monitor’. But it was for his improvement to
the steam engine, the major source of all motive power in the 19th
and early 20th centuries, that Corliss achieved his reputation and
fortune. He received more than 70 patents for improvements to the
stationary steam engine, and, when his patents became public
property in 1870, manufacturers around the world began producing
‘Corliss’ steam engines. Volume 21 (1768) of Engineering
(London) alone carried articles on four different Corliss engines,
each built in different countries and only one built by Corliss

In 1870, George Corliss was six years away from what many would
consider his crowning achievement. As a member of the Centennial
Commission from Rhode Island, appointed by President Grant, Corliss
offered to provide the motive power for the largest exhibition hall
of the 1876 Centennial, Machinery Hall. This hall, which when
built, covered 14 acres of Fairmont Park, Philadelphia, housed the
most sophisticated machinery that had ever been assembled under one
roof. It was this display, particularly those machines of American
creators, that set the course toward technology and mechanization
into which we have lunged with such dubious success in the last
century of national life. And the achievement of George Corliss,
Providence industrialist and enterpreneur, more than any other
display made the Centennial crowds gape.

The irony of the Corliss entry was that it was the one piece of
working machinery in the hall. All others were display machines;
but Corliss’ machine was the spellbinder. The estimates had
been made that it would take 1,400 hp to power the 14 acres of
machinery. Several Commissioners had proposed that five to eight
small steam engines should be used in strategic locations
throughout the hall to provide motive power. But Corliss proposed
one grand machine that would be, in his words, ‘the most
perfect and commanding exhibit.’

And such his machine was. It stood 40 feet tall, weighed 700
tons, and developed with grace and nearly silent efficiency the
necessary 1,400 hp. Every publication in the land covering the
Centennial observed the Corliss Centennial Engine. Engineering
(London) called it ‘a grand mechanical monument’. French
sculptor Bartholdi wrote that it was so graceful in operation as to
have ‘the beauty, and almost the grace of the human form.’
Another publication personified it as ‘a veritable King among
machinery’. And the Providence Daily Journal noted that
‘Rhode Island holds a distinguished position in the Centennial
Exhibition, on account of that huge and powerful machine of Mr.

The engine ran during the six months of the Exposition, six days
a week, delivering 4,400 hp daily without a hitch or flaw. It
consumed 25 to 30 tons of coal a day; its flywheel made 2,355,000
revolutions during the six months, traveling 260 miles a day, or
40,147 miles for the entire Centennial Exhibition. It was, as a
modern observer has said, ‘little short of the eighth wonder of
the world’.

So popular was the Corliss Centennial Engine that the Pullman
Company bought the machine from Corliss to power its car works in
Pullman, Illinois, where the engine was a showpiece past which
guided tours were conducted daily. In 1910 the Corliss Centennial
Engine was dismantled and sold for scrap at $10.95 a ton. The
blueprints are now owned by the Smithsonian’s Museum of History
and Technology, and talk persists of rebuilding Mr. Corliss’
monstrous wonder for the 1976 Bi-Centennial, although cost will no
doubt be prohibitive.

While his huge walking-beam engine was a dinosaur, the
contribution of Corliss to American industry and to his
nation’s glory in 1876 is not diminished; just forgotten. He
still stands, as was said of him in 1912, second to James Watt
‘as a factor in bringing the engine to its present state of
efficiency.’ In Providence, all that remains on the site of the
Corliss’ plant to remind one of Corliss is a street named
‘Corliss.’ The Corliss home, an exquisite house designed
and built by Corliss in 1880, eight years before his death, yet
stands within the environs of Brown University, the present

  • Published on Nov 1, 1972
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