Northern Missouri man builds Nichols and Shepard little engine from a blueprint in his head
A remarkable little engine that has the folks in northern Missouri from the big ranch farmer down to the barefoot street urchin tagging after it has been built by John T. Offutt, self-taught machinist and inventor. The midget engine can be seen on many festive occasions pulling a string of small wagons filled with squealing youngsters through the streets of some town or the dusty grounds of a county fair.
The sturdy little engine was modeled after the old Nichols and Shepard steam engine. Mr. Offutt chose that particular model because as he put it. "I'd been carrying the blueprint of that engine around in my head for years with the idea that some day I'd build me a little engine. Of course there are no blueprints for that model now."
Mr. Offutt worked for sixteen years in the Nichols and Shepard shop and had an almost photo static image in his mind. He made no patterns of the parts but simply cut them out and welded them together. Strangely enough, they were accurate and in proportion.
As a boy Mr. Offutt had a fear of engines that was something of a phobia. Said he, "Many times as a child I have run home and hid from the big threshing machine engines that I saw coming down the road toward me. To me they were giant dragons belching fire and smoke. It was a terrible fear that I couldn't seem to overcome. A brother-in-law and a friend finally decided that something should be done to help me overcome such a fear. With great patience they taught me to understand the steam engine and how to operate it. Gradually intense fear turned into a deep love that has never left me. I got so I'd listen for the trains as they whistled through our little town. They meant as much to me as the greetings of an old friend."
Truthfully speaking, Mr. Offutt had no tools with which to build a steam engine. He possessed only a "two-bit" pair of pliers to start his work but that was the way he worked. He set out to find material and found most of it in junk heaps or scrap piles of friends willing to share with him. Many farmers in the area brought in odd wheels, gears and rods to give to the well-known inventor. They were certain that at some time or another he would have use for them. In his garage were gears from a mowing machine, wheels from a cider press, old phonograph mechanisms and a half dozen other assorted odds and ends taken from discarded machinery that were brought in just in case they might be needed in making the powerful little engine.
A friend and expert machinist, Robert Hauetter, gave the inventor permission to use a corner of his machine shop to make the engine. And, with that permission went the permission to use any tools he needed also. The inventor traded a repaired watch worth twenty-five dollars for the use of an electric welder that he borrowed from another friend.
Mr. Offutt estimates that the material used in the little engine cost him about twenty-seven dollars and about five hundred hours of skilled labor. It took him a year and a half to build the engine on his leisure time.
When interviewed Mr. Offutt was sitting at a desk with a bit of brown wrapping paper spread out before him and the glass top from a preserve compote serving as a compass as he made a model drawing of a flywheel with spokes for his engine. The old Nichols and Shepard engine had spokes to take care of the contraction and expansion of the metal. The flywheel of Mr. Offutt's engine had different spokes.
"Nobody would have ever known the difference," he said with a grin, "but I did and I wanted to change them. I wanted them to be exactly right. I've got to make a whistle for my engine, too. The one on it now is a gift from a friend but it's out of proportion and I want one the right size. I like to hear steam engine whistles blow so well that it's going to be fun making one."
The coal burning engine is fifty inches long and twenty-seven inches high from the top of the smoke stack. Its drive wheels are sixteen inches in diameter by six and one-fourth with a three inch hub machined out of flat iron. The engine weighs four hundred pounds and moves at a top speed of three miles an hour. The engine normally carries an eighty to eighty-five head of steam but can carry a head of one hundred-fifty pounds. It has passed a boiler test of 375 pounds cold water.
The inventor figures that the little engine is worth twenty-five hundred dollars if a reasonable price were paid for the man hours spent in making it. Several who have seen the advertising possibilities of the sturdy little engine at farm gatherings and county fairs have often asked the inventor if he would sell the engine. To such a question Mr. Offutt always replies with a far-away look in his eyes, "Well, I guess maybe some day I'll sell it if I get a fair price but, by golly, I'd hate to part with it. That's a fine little engine and it's got a lot of power."
Of course to every hobbyist the one and one-eighth horse power engine has much attraction. It typifies the know-how and ingenuity of the average American with a dream in his heart, and, it sort of encourages one to tackle a job even if he doesn't have anything more than a "two-bit" pair of pliers and a rusty screwdriver. ST