108 Garfield Avenue Madison, New Jersey 07940
Long time regular readers of this magazine will recall the
July/August, 1978 article, There Is Coal In Our Future. This
pointed out the comforting fact that we have more coal than the
Arabs have oil. Later, in the Nov/Dec, 1981 issue, there was the
story of The Steam Engine Still Lives On. In the meantime there
have been some developments that, although started even earlier,
are coming to light now that suggest that coal burning steam
engines are looking to a brighter future.
In July, 1983, the Quincy Shipbuilding Division of General
Dynamics delivered to New England Electric System the SS ENERGY
INDEPENDENCE. This is the first coal burning steamship to have been
built since 1929. She is now at sea hauling coal between Hampton
Roads and two Massachusetts ports. In August, 1983, the Maritime
Commission released a report on the favorable economics of coal
burning ships. The report intimates that others are following the
route of the ENERGY INDEPENDENCE. In fact, overseas, there are six
ships now under construction that will be coal fired. But, more
important to the familiar steam engine is the outlook for steam
powered Western Rivers towboats powered with one or more
reciprocating steam engines. Since the Skinner Engine Company is
the only major builder of steam engines today, that puts them in
the forefront of this activity. Therefore, it might be interesting
to have a brief look at their history.
Le Grand Skinner founded the Skinner Engine Company in 1868. The
original manufacturing plant was in Herkimer, New York. Here he
built his first line of steam engines. These were mounted atop the
associated steam boiler in a manner familiar to those interested in
portable engines and traction engines. By 1873 the plant had grown
in size and was then moved to its present home city of Erie,
Pennsylvania. By 1900, additional space was required at which time
the present facility of nine separate buildings was constructed.
Actually, with business expanding into other lines, this facility
is too small and plans were underway to again expand.
‘Grandfather’ Le Grand Skinner continued as active head
of the company until his death in 1922. Whereupon, Allen Skinner,
his son, took over the management.
Marketing of the engines took on a different flavor with the
advent of Allen Skinner to the command position. He tended to be
more of the marketer than the engineer that typified his father.
The product line was of such quality and superior economic
advantage over the then competition that his sales approach was to
offer to sell a potential customer his engine requirement for $1
plus all of the savings accruing to the installation of a Skinner
engine. It sold engines and made money.
Allen Skinner had a son whom he named J. Le Grand Skinner and we
find that in 1949 the third generation of Skinner’s running the
business. Along with him he also had K. W. Van Eman as Vice
President and Marine Manager indicating that the manufacture of
steam engines for marine use was a major factor in the company
business. But also of importance was the Field Service
organization. Mr. E. G. Jagernann was one of these fine service
engineers who visited Skinner installations to advise valued
customers on the operation and maintenance of these engines.
Servicing what they sold has been a policy from the beginning and
continues even today. This is typified by their buying back a
number of old engines as they became available. These are rebuilt
and stocked for resale.
SKINNER counter flow steam engine. Note enclosed crank-case and
the positive pressure lubricating system. Courtesy Skinner Engine
J. L. Skinner continued to manage the business up until 1963
when it was sold to Dan Richmond. Unfortunately, for Mr. Richmond,
he was not to live but for a couple of years after the purchase.
With his death, the company was soon to become a part of Banner
Industries where it resides today as a profit center in this
interesting conglomerate that started out as a hardware jobbing
house in 1925.
It is fortunate that Skinner Engine Company did not loose its
family oriented atmosphere wherein pride of workmanship is endemic.
In 1937, a boy only two years out of high school was looking for a
job with Skinner. This was Richard M. Whiting. He has been with
them ever since and is now Director of Engineering. He too has a
son who he named Richard Dennis Whiting and was influential in
getting him to join the company. Today, Dennis is President and so
the family tradition carries on. There must be a similar feeling
within the Banner company management since 40% of the stock
ownership is held by Officers and Directors of the company.
Going back now to the technical side of the company, let us look
at the product line past and present. There have been two processes
taking place over the years. One was the development of engines and
the other the acquisition of competing companies with the view to
expand the line. Among these acquisitions was the Ames Iron Works
of Oswego, New York. Many of these fine engines are still in
operation. In this same program, Skinner acquired the Troy Engine
Company. This piston valve engine is available today in sizes up to
200 horsepower. It is gaining favor in third world countries from
Haiti to Fiji where they are used in co-generation projects. The
waste fuel used runs from coconut husks to peanut shells.
Skinner are probably as well known for their line of marine
engines as they are for fixed base units. They introduced the
vertical uniflow engine in to the marine trade in 1927. Over the
years this line has been improved and expanded to the point where
an eight cylinder, 11,000 horsepower, compound engine operating on
steam at 775 pounds pressure and superheated to 850 degrees is
Currently, the records show that they have built 347 marine
engines. Some of the best known installations were in the
Mississippi Barge Line towboats the OHIO and the TENNESSEE which
were built in 1930. WW II saw 63 harbor tugs powered with Skinner
engines. There were sixteen five-cylinder engines installed in
Landing Ship Dock (LSD) hulls. Many of these are still in
operation. Some were sold to the Argentine after the war.
Incidentally, spare part orders were being received during the
recent Falkland Islands episode.
Following WW II the steam engine business, particularly the
marine field, just about collapsed. At this point Skinner began
looking around for other business to occupy their shop facilities.
It is interesting to note how pure chance enters into our lives and
the lives of businesses. The story goes that one day a man walked
into the Erie works office with a roll of drawings under his arm.
It seemed that he was in the business of building rubber mixing
machines over in Akron. Unfortunately, his plant had been destroyed
by fire and he was looking for a shop that could immediately build
machines to fill orders then on the books. The Skinner shops
stepped into the breach and produced the rubber mixing machines in
record time. The association was a profitable one for in a short
time the one-man business was hit by the death of the one-man.
Skinner bought out the drawings, rights and the total business from
his estate. Soon they were able to buy out a portion of the
Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton pump line and eventually the complete line.
Becoming a subsidiary of Banner Industries brought them into other
lines of business some of which came from the Patterson Industries
acquisition by Banner in 1968. After assimilating the portion best
suited to their facilities, Patterson was spun-off in 1963.
In recent years there have been several developments that again
give the reciprocating steam engine renewed life and an improved
outlook. One of these is the relative cost between oil, either
diesel or heavy oil, and coal. On a cents per million BTU basis,
diesel is now over three times the cost of coal. And, it is
approaching that for the heavy fuel used in steam boilers. Since a
diesel cycle is incapable of handling coal as a solid fuel it is
eliminated in coal cycle considerations. It remains necessary to go
through the steam phase in getting the heat energy from the coal
fuel to the work area. Furthermore, oil is resource limited even on
a world wide basis and coal is market demand limited. Thus, in the
future, coal price is going to remain relatively constant compared
One of the factors putting the steam engine to a disadvantage in
high efficiency service was the lube oil in the exhaust steam. This
created problems in recycling the condensate back to the boiler.
However, there have been some recent developments in this area that
have all but eliminated this as a problem. It is the ‘timed
cylinder lubrication’ system. In this system the engine is
provided with a crosshead driven reciprocating oil pump. Oil under
pressure is admitted to the piston ring groove through internal
passages on the shaft and rod so that only an extremely thin film
of oil adheres to the cylinder wall. There is virtually no oil in
the exhaust steam as compared to injecting the oil with the live
steam. What little there is can be removed by a diatomaceous earth
filter. With such a system, it is possible to also pipe oil to all
bearing surfaces for constant positive pressure lubrication.
Lube oil breakdown temperature limits have also been
instrumental in keeping steam conditions lower than those that can
be achieved with a steam turbine with its external bearings.
However, with the advent of high temperature synthetic lube oils
developed for the aircraft jet engine and with the timed system it
has been possible to achieve steam temperatures up to 850 degrees
F. Although land based steam power plants operate at 2400 pounds
pressure and 1,000 degrees, turbine ships are generally limited to
900 pound 900 degrees. Or, essentially the same as for the
multi-cylinder compound steam engine.
How then does one go about making the choice between a steam
turbine and a steam engine? Actually, it turns out that they both
have their respective fields. One is high speed (up to 5500 rpm)
and the other is basically a slow speed machine of not more than
120 rpm in the very large sizes. The turbine is best suited to
continuous full load operation while the steam engine actually has
improved efficiency at part load compared to full load so it is
suited to variable load service. Best of all, it is reversible. In
services requiring reversing capability, the turbine is at a
disadvantage since reversing capability is provided by a second
machine of only enough power to handle the reverse load.
It is this latter factor that presents the bright future in
towboat service on long haul assignments as in the Western River
System. Studies are being made to see just where the present day
machines can fit into this service. Skinner Engine Company has a
bright future ahead.