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.

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.