Ingenious Steam Machines

In the latter half of the 19th century, steam's power made for some interesting steam machines


| November/December 2003



Winans Steam Gun

The Winans steam gun.

While manufacturers busied themselves with increasingly successful farm steam engines, inventors were experimenting with a host of steam machines many of them fascinating, some of them zany, and a few of them bizarre. Here is a look at some noteworthy steam devices culled from the pages of history.

THE GIFFARD STEAM DIRIGIBLE

On Sept. 24, 1852, French inventor Henri Giffard, using a steam engine for power, designed and flew the first full-size airship. His flight took him from a Paris racecourse to the small town of Trappes some 15 miles west at a speed of roughly 6 mph. Giffard's airship consisted of a net surrounding a gas-filled, cigar-shaped balloon. A pole hung from the net, horizontally and in line with the balloon, and a gondola was suspended beneath the pole. The ship supported a boiler weighing 100 pounds and an engine weighing 250 pounds; relatively light, but still heavy for an airship. Aware of the potential for fire or explosion, Giffard surrounded the boiler's stoke hole with wire gauze. He also pointed the boiler's exhaust down and away from the balloon.

Giffard's next experimental craft barely escaped disaster. Giffard tried to suspend a boiler and engine beneath what he hoped was an improved bag, but escaping gas caused the balloon to flatten. In turn, the gondola's nose tilted upward, some lines broke and the balloon slipped from the net and burst. Giffard and a passenger miraculously survived with only minor injuries. Following this, Giffard planned a mammoth, steam-powered airship weighing 30 tons, but prohibitive costs caused him to scrap the project. Giffard is best known in the farm steam engine community as the inventor of the injector.

THE WINANS STEAM GUN

In 1861, Ross Winans, a locomotive builder in Baltimore, Md., manufactured a steam-powered gun invented by a Charles S. Dickenson. Winans welcomed novelty, a trait he was known for in his locomotive designs, and he applied his enthusiasm for innovation when he produced the steam gun that came to bear his name.

The idea behind the gun was to use steam to hurl a cannonball; his "gun" was supposedly capable of throwing 200 balls a minute (weight unknown) up to 2 miles, of projecting a 100-pound cannon ball and even of firing bullets. The Winans device could be considered an early machine gun, and certain writers have described it by that term. A hopper fed the pivoted gun barrel of the Winans gun, which itself ran on railroad tracks. Winans evidently hoped it might be used to bring the rapidly escalating Civil War to a quick conclusion.

Although born in Vernon, N.J., Winans was a Confederate sympathizer who was actively involved in Confederate politics. In May of 1861 Winans shipped his gun south from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry, Va., but on May 11, 1861, Colonel Edward F. Jones of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler intercepted Winans' gun. Three days later, Butler captured Winans in Baltimore. Had Secretary of State William H. Seward not interceded on behalf of the millionaire prisoner, Winans might have been hanged for treason. Instead, he was released, a fact that angered Butler for the rest of his life. Through the remainder of the war, the gun protected the Baltimore & Ohio Patuxent River Viaduct.