The Centrifugal Rotary Engine Company of Lancaster 1870-1871

| September/October 1998

Rotary Engine

Excerpted from an article by Donald J. Summar published in Vol. 81, No. 2, Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Reprinted courtesy of the Lancaster County Historical Society.

In 1904, J. M. W. Geist read before the Lancaster County Historical Society a paper titled 'Gibson's Steam Turbine Engine,' which concerned an attempt to manufacture turbines in Lancaster in 1870. Geist, who had been editor of the Lancaster Daily Express in 1870, was well qualified to write his paper for he knew the men involved and had witnessed a preliminary test of Gibson's engine.1 Since the publication of Geist's article the papers of Judge Alexander L. Hayes (1793-1875) have been donated to the Lancaster County Historical Society; among them were a number of items which related the attempt of Hayes, Gibson, and others to perfect Gibson's Turbine and organize a company called the Centrifugal Rotary Engine Company to manufacture it. This paper is based primarily on the Hayes papers.

Alexander L. Hayes came to Lancaster in 1827 as Judge of the District Court for Lancaster and York Counties. From 1833 to 1849 he was President Judge of the District Court of Lancaster County. Hayes was also involved in numerous business enterprises in Lancaster and was the most ardent backer of Samuel Gibson, inventor of a steam turbine.2

Samuel Gibson was a resident of Safe Harbor and at one time had worked at the iron works there. In 1869 he listed his occupation as that of watchmaker.3 He was already a successful inventor, having patented a paint brush which was made in York, Pennsylvania, by the Gibson Brush Manufactory, operated by Isaac W. G. Wierman.4

Samuel Gibson had first conceived the idea for a steam turbine (at that time called a centrifugal rotary steam engine) after reading about the reaction turbine made by Hero of Alexandria in the first century of the Christian Era.5 Hero's engine consisted of a hollow metal ball on trunnions through one of which steam was piped from a boiler. The ball had bent pipes on opposite sides through which the steam was released, causing the ball to spin on its axis.6

Since Hero's time many efforts had been made to duplicate his principle in a practical rotary engine. One effort was patented in 1784 by Wolfgang von Kempelen of Press-burg, Hungary. Kempelen's engine was dismissed by James Watt, developer of the reciprocating steam engine in the 1770s, who reasoned that the high velocity of steam would give the rotary engine a speed, at efficient operation, that would be too fast for the state of the mechanical arts at that time.7