John Charter: Charter Member

John Charter is credited with building the first internal combustion traction engine.

| June 2014

Before the Waterloo Boy, before the Froelich, the little known Charter “traction engine” was on the job in South Dakota, working as the world’s first liquid-fueled, internal combustion farm tractor. Built in Sterling, Ill., in 1887, the Charter quietly made history.

By the 1870s, Nikolaus Otto was perfecting the groundbreaking internal combustion engine in Germany. In 1877 Otto patented the 4-stroke, horizontal single-cylinder engine. It was a major advancement from Lenoir’s “explosion engine” of the 1860s. Principles of the Lenoir and Otto engines were eagerly duplicated in the U.S. Both of those early engines ran on what was then known as “town gas.”

In about 1800, when the industrial age was advancing into full swing, coal and coke were important industry fuels. A byproduct of coal combustion, synthesis gas — syngas — was then known as town gas, street gas or illuminating gas. This gas was generated at municipal gas works for more than a century in England, the U.S. and Australia. In larger cities it was generated, stored and piped at low pressure for use in streetlights. It was also piped into some residences for use in ovens and stoves.

Town gas was produced in cookeries where coal was pyrolyzed in a battery of airtight ovens that liberated the gas. Coal tar and coke were valuable byproducts. The industrial gasifying process generated heat, noise, dust, foul smells, condensates and toxic gases. Gas quality was variable and calorific value relatively low. To top it off, town gas was extremely hazardous, mainly because of its high carbon monoxide content: Toxic to humans, the gas is tasteless, odorless and colorless. The “gassy” smell from other constituents in the gas stream of the locally produced syngas had one advantage though: Leaks were readily detected.

When natural gas gained acceptance, municipal gas works — usually huge structures — were torn down. Natural gas is mined from fossil deposits and consists largely of methane. Methane has twice the energy of manufactured gas and does not contain carbon monoxide. When natural gas is burnt, it gives off less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, so it’s environmentally friendly. Incidentally, in the 1870s, gasoline was a distillation waste product, sometimes dumped into local waterways.

An astute businessman

Born in Germany, John Charter was a boy of 6 when he came to the U.S. with his parents in 1844. An enterprising lad, he learned the cigar-making trade to earn money and by age 19 had patented a cigar mold that brought him a useful income. He joined the staff at the nearby Sterling Gas Co., where he was soon named manager, and then became president of Williams & Orton Mfg. Co., also of Sterling. Charter persuaded W&O management to take on engine manufacture after a visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, where he and the office manager saw an Otto engine working. They ordered one on the spot.