Antique American Steam Gauge Museum

A passion for steam leads to high-pressure museum in Utah

| July/August 2005

After collecting steam traction engine steam gauges for many years, I begun to see interesting developments in their evolution. It was these gauge developments that started to peak my curiosity as to the technological developments of the steam engines they were used on.

Steam gauge history

The most common company name I’ve seen on traction or farm engine steam gauges is the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., and probably the most common maker of these gauges was the Ashcroft Mfg. Co. who held the U.S. patent to the Bourdon gauge dated Aug. 3, 1852. Both companies had their start in the mid-1800s, Case in 1842 and Ashcroft later in 1851. But it wasn’t until 1869 that Case built its first portable steam engine. The first of over 36,000 may be the reason we have seen so many surviving Case gauges.

In the beginning, there wasn’t much for the traction engine makers to choose from in the way of steam gauges. When Case built its first engine (just a portable engine, not a traction engine), the choice was between a diaphragm gauge and a Bourdon gauge. Most diaphragm gauges of the time consisted of a pressure chamber with a corrugated disc of thin metal that would deflect under pressure. The deflection was transmitted to a pointer on the dial through various linkages. On the other hand, the Bourdon gauge operated with a horseshoe shaped tube that would attempt to straighten under pressure. The movement of the Bourdon tube was also transmitted to a pointer on the dial of the gauge through linkages. By 1869, when Case needed to order gauges for its engines, the Bourdon gauge had already begun to surpass the popularity of the diaphragm gauge.

For the traction engine maker, I would suspect the deciding factor was the invention of the T.W. Lane improvement on the Bourdon gauge patented on Feb. 22, 1859. In its 1876 catalog, American marketed its Lane gauge as one that “removes all objections to the original gauge for locomotives, portable engines, and other moving machinery.”

In 1869, Case was probably aware of the superior improvement that the T.W. Lane patent offered over the original Ashcroft patent. Because the addition of the user company name did not become common until the mid- to late-1870s, the early Case gauges most likely did not have the J.I. Case name on their dials.

Photos 1 and 1A (view all photos in the Image Gallery) are an early example of a small 5-inch dial, American Steam Gauge Co. gauge with the 1852 Ashcroft patent and the 1859 T.W. Lane patent. It is very likely that a gauge similar to this would have been used on the early Case engines.