Harris-Corliss Steam Engine

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Harris Steam Engine Company works, 1878.

800 Spring Valley Drive Cumming, Georgia 30131

This story about a piece of metallic history starts off like
most of them, by accident. As a newcomer to Atlanta, Georgia, I had
started restoration work on a French Morbier grandfather clock.
Early into the restoration, I realized that the moldings on this
piece would have to be replaced. Easier said than done. After a
hundred-fifty years, moldings like these have to be custom
made.

After letting my fingers do the walking, I came upon Randall
Brothers. This company manufactures custom moldings, doors,
windows, etc., perfect for my project. I called and spoke to Jack
Spangler about my molding needs, faxed over a side view to scale
and was told ‘no problem.’ Still skeptical about the price
(very reasonable!) and their ability to reproduce it accurately in
red oak, I took over a sample.

View of the Harris-Corliss engine as it appears today, still at
Randall Brothers almost 90 years after it was purchased. From an
ASME brochure.

One could tell that the building had been there for a long time.
Jack confirmed that Randall Brothers had been in that same location
since 1885. So I asked if there was any old wood-cutting equipment
back there. He casually mentioned a few molding cutters and an old
steam engine with a 13 foot flywheel! (My mind raced frantically to
figure out how to tell my wife this steam engine followed me
home…) We made a tentative appointment to get a tour of the shop
when my molding was ready for pick-up.

A few weeks later I went back and picked up the molding. It was
difficult to tell the difference between the old one and the new.
Their tooling personnel faithfully reproduced it to the last
detail.

Jack then took me back and introduced me to Jim Lowry,
Superintendent over manufacturing and operations at Randall Bros.
We walked into the shop and saw an old molding cutter and walked
through their machine shop area. There is a lathe and drill press
still in working order belted to the overhead pulleys. Beyond
another door the great steam engine sat, hissing, waiting to be
turned up. In another room stand two large boilers. One is used for
shop heat but can build up enough pressure to get the old girl
turning.

The engine was dedicated as a regional historic mechanical
engineering landmark in 1985. Information from the dedication
program prepared by ASME for that event reveals the following
information.

Sometime during 1977 the old 350 horsepower Harris-Corliss
engine at the Randall Brothers Co. was retired from its job as a
prime mover for the woodworking plant. Retirement did not come
because of the age of the engine, over 80 years, but because of the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s concern over the smoke
from the boiler smokestacks. The engine was still, and is to this
day, in perfect working order.

Because of the EPA concern, the boilers, which had previously
been fired by scrap woodchips from the woodworking plant, were
converted to oil, but even this did not prove successful. Fuel oil
was too expensive and winter supplies are unreliable. In 1977 the
Randall Brothers plant switched to grid-supplied electricity.

One of the final jobs for the engine was to run a vacuum system
that sucked up sawdust around the old plant, but that job, too,
yielded to outside electricity.

The Randall Brothers’ engine has been around so long that no
one remembers when things happened to the engine or even when it
was purchased. According to a brass plaque on the engine, it was
built by the William A. Harris Steam Engine Co. of Providence, R.I.
Historical records suggest that it was built sometime before 1895,
because the engine was exhibited at the Cotton States and
International Exposition of 1895 which took place on the site of
what is now Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The engine is typical of the
machinery that helped Georgia recover from the effects of the Civil
War.

Records from the William A. Harris Steam Engine Co. indicate
that Exposition Cotton Mills, Atlanta, Ga., ordered a 350
horsepower engine on April 12, 1898 for delivery on May 16, 1898.
This order was filled with the engine that was on exhibit at the
1895 Exposition. Randall Brothers, Inc. purchased the engine from
Exposition Cotton Mills sometime between 1898 and 1910. The engine
was used on a regular basis to drive an electric generator and to
power machinery, including lumber saws, through overhead line
shafting. The boilers that supplied the steam were capable of
burning wood, coal or gas until converted to fuel oil in the
1970s.

This Harris-Corliss steam engine served the Randall Brothers for
more than 75 years. Toward the end of its operation there were some
problems finding replacements when parts wore out. When parts
needed to be replaced, Randall Brothers simply made them in their
own machine shop.

Although no longer in regular use, the steam engine is in its
original location at the Randall Brothers plant. It is in
outstanding mechanical operating condition, and is regularly
available to the public, particularly engineering classes at the
Georgia Institute of Technology for whom the boilers are
occasionally fired up to show the operation of a classic Corliss
steam engine.

The Randall Brothers’ Harris-Corliss engine is rated at 350
horsepower at a speed of 90 rpm. The flywheel is 13 feet in
diameter with a 25-inch face and the drive belt is approximately
102 feet long. The engine cylinder measures 16 inches in diameter
with a 42-inch stroke. The crankshaft diameter is 14 inches. This
simple engine operates at a steam pressure of 125 psi.

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