James Watt Steam Engine: Iowa Club Obtains Historic 1799 Item, Boring Mill

Moving 60 HP Watt engine took planning

| July/August 2006

Old engine and steam engine buffs can appreciate a really old steam engine – but some are so huge that moving them just isn’t worth the time and expense. So when Mike Shanks received a phone call about a stationary steam engine – what turned out to be a 1799 James Watt steam engine – his questions were: how old and big?

The DoAll 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 Cedar Valley Engine Club, the club Shanks was a member of, was interested. But how much would it cost to move it to Charles City, Iowa, and would the acquisition be worth the time? At this point, the club had no idea what it was dealing with.

A few weeks later on an early spring day in 2005, six members of the club drove to Des Plaines to see the engine. 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 the club was 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 the club found, this engine is a 60 HP engine initially run on around 5 pounds of steam pressure.

Transporting the Watt engine

Could the engine be moved again at a cost the club could afford? Four club members first determined that the flywheel could be disassembled into eight sections, so it could be transported on the highway. They spent several hours measuring and estimating the weight of various pieces. They were able to report back that the engine could be moved, but it would be prohibitively expensive to hire professional movers. However, it appeared that club members could disassemble and transport it on flatbed trailers of the type they used to move their antique tractors.