James Watt Steam Engine

Iowa Club Obtains Historic 1799 Engine

| July 2006

  • LateLeightonWilkeWattEngine.jpg
    Above: The late Leighton Wilke with the Watt engine in his Hall of Mechanical Evolution.
  • FirstFlywheelSectionRemoved.jpg
    Above: The first flywheel section being removed. This spoke was damaged in the last moving process and pinned to keep it lined up. Steve Montag is on the gear behind the spoke to guide it from hitting anything.
  • SteveMontag_MikeShanks_Watt.jpg
    Right: The beginning process of taking the first section of the flywheel apart on the Watt engine. Steve Montag is turning the wrench and Mike Shanks is standing on the gear.
  • RemovingthePins.jpg
    Right: Removing the pins that held the flywheel together. Jason Skillen and Steve Montag are running the drill while Mike Shanks steadies the flywheel against the vibration from drilling.
  • TheBrassWorks.jpg
    Right: The brass works next to the steam cylinder were taken apart for the move. The parts were all wrapped in shrink wrap and labeled. Brass and cast iron, what great building materials.
  • TheFirstTrailer.jpg
    Right: The first trailer being loaded and getting ready for the trip to the Cedar Valley show grounds. The walking beam and connecting rod are in the front of the trailer and the steam cylinder and support pillars are in the rear of the trailer.
  • WorkingComponents.jpg
    Below: Taking some of the piping apart below floor level. Quite a bit of the working components of this engine were located below floor level.

  • LateLeightonWilkeWattEngine.jpg
  • FirstFlywheelSectionRemoved.jpg
  • SteveMontag_MikeShanks_Watt.jpg
  • RemovingthePins.jpg
  • TheBrassWorks.jpg
  • TheFirstTrailer.jpg
  • WorkingComponents.jpg

Old engine and steam engine buffs can appreciate a really old steam engine. So it was that when Mike Shanks, a member of the Cedar Valley Engine Club, received a phone call asking if the club might be interested in an old stationary steam engine, his questions were: how old and how big?

The Do All Co. in Des Plaines, Ill., a manufacturer of industrial sawing equipment, was in the process of moving from their original plant. An engine collected by the founder of the company, Leighton Wilkie, wasn't slated to be moved to their new location. Yes, the club was interested, but how much would it cost to move it to Charles City, Iowa, and would the acquisition be worth the time, because at this point we had no idea what we were dealing with.

A few weeks later on an early spring day in 2005, six members of the club drove to Des Plaines to see what had been offered to the club. What they found was a 1799 Watt steam engine with an 18-foot flywheel that appeared to be complete - even to the metal railing that had been around it in the textile mill. It was in a large central room of the plant, and was, for its age, in excellent condition. It was mounted on concrete piers with a large overhead wood frame that supported the cast iron beam connecting the piston to the crank. In the plant it had been "run" with an electric motor hidden behind a block wall.

Hmm, now I think we were getting interested.



The engine had been built in 1799 at the Boulten & Watt factory in Birmingham, England, in what is now the Royal Mint. One of the valves is stamped 1797, leading to some question as to the exact date of construction. It was purchased in Frome, England, and taken to Chard, England, in 1827, where it operated the Gifford, Fox & Co. Ltd. textile mill. The magnificent brass governor was added in 1857. The engine was still working in the plant in 1948. Wilkie purchased the engine and had it transported from the plant to Des Plaines in 1958.

According to some of the information we found, this engine is a 60 HP engine initially run on around 5 pounds of steam pressure.



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