About the Corliss Engine
Dr. George F. Corliss, MU EECE



Image From Centenial Collection Digital Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Corliss Engine

"The Corliss engine does not lend itself to description; its personal acquaintance must be sought by those who would understand its vast and almost silent grandeur. It rises loftily in the centre of the huge structure, an athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it; the mighty walking beams plunge their pistons downward, the enormous flywheel revolves with a hoarded power that makes all tremble, the hundred life like details do their office with unerring intelligence. In the midst of this ineffably strong mechanism is a chair where the engineer sits reading his newspaper, as in a peaceful bower. Now and then he lays down his paper and clambers up one of the stairways that cover the framework, and touches some irritated spot on the giant's body with a drop of oil, and goes down again and takes up his newspaper; he is like some potent enchanter there, and this prodigious Afreet is his slave who could crush him past all semblance of humanity with his lightest touch. It is, alas! what the Afreet has done to humanity too often, where his strength has superseded men's industry; but of such things the Machinery Hall is no place to speak, and to be honest, one never thinks of such things there. One thinks only of the glorious triumphs of skill and invention; and wherever else the national bird is mute in one's breast, here he cannot fail to utter his pride and content. It would be a barren place without the American machinery. All that Great Britain and Germany have sent is insignificant in amount when compared with our own contributions; the superior elegance, aptness*, and ingenuity of our machinery is observable at a glance. Yes, it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks; by and by the inspired marbles, the breathing canvases, the great literature; for the present America is voluble in the strong metals and their infinite uses." - William Dean Howells (1832 - 1920), www.sauguscenturions.com/msmith/howell.html


Story from Frank Eggers:

My father told me a story about the Corliss engine which, in earlier times, ran the Eggers Plywood and Veneer Company in Two Rivers, WI. He was born in 1899, so I suppose that the episode must have occurred between 1910 and 1920.

The factory was run by a Corliss engine having a flywheel about 12 feet in diameter which weighed several tons. The end of the crankshaft broke, causing the spinning flywheel to fall onto the wooden floor underneath. Because there was some oil on the floor, the flywheel at first didn't go anyplace; it just spun on the floor until it burned up all the oil. Then, it took off and, according to the operator, didn't slow down noticeably as it went through the brick wall about 10 feet away. It kept going until it ran into a log pile, then it continued spinning until it stopped. My father didn't actually see it happen, but he did see the hole in the brick wall.

Story from Ric Corless:

I thought you might be interested to know that a Corliss steam engine was recently retired on Maui, Hawaii, after running a portion of the Pu'unene Sugar Mill until the late 1990's!!! My understanding is that it will eventually be exhibited at the Sugar Museum on the grounds of the mill. The manager of the museum was given a build plate from one of the Corliss engines about 3 years ago. (Apparently they were a popular item for people to remove and take home as souvenir of their job.)

The entire mill was run by these engines until remarkably recent times, owing in part to the nature of the mill, in that byproducts from the process was practical to burn as fuel to fire boilers. These engines not only ran the mill, but produced a significant percentage of electricity for Maui until recent years! The "process" still remains, but (I'm told) turbine engines have replaced the reciprocating version.

Corliss Engine sites:

Henry Ford Museum - www.thehenryford.org/exhibits/pic/2003/03_may.asp - "Corliss engines were renowned for their superior economy, but it was their smooth running speed and swift response to changes in load that ensured their great success. These engines were particularly attractive to the textile industry. The energy needed to drive the vast numbers of machines used in textile mills was considerable but the delicacy of the threads and fabrics produced by textile machinery demanded that the power source be very responsive. The patented Corliss valve gear allowed the engine to maintain the precise speed needed to avoid thread breakage while simultaneously responding to varying loads as different machines were brought in or out of operation.
      This engine was owned by the Washington Real Estate Company of Providence, Rhode Island where it provided central mechanical power to a number of independent workshops. It is the only engine built by The Corliss Steam Engine Company during George Corliss' lifetime to have survived."

etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/yankee/cymach1.html - "The Double Corliss Engine was the big hit of America's Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876. It powered all the exhibits in Machinery Hall, where it stood on a platform 56 feet across. Its two cylinders spun a flywheel 30 feet in diameter and weighing 56 tons to produce 1400 horsepower. On the first day of the Exposition, President Grant and the Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil started the engine." Corliss Engine

www.150.si.edu/chap4/4ngin.htm - "Dwarfing visitors, the 70-foot-tall Corliss steam engine powered the Centennial Exposition's entire Machinery Hall. Built by George Corliss, it was the largest steam engine in the world. Of engines like the Corliss, William Dean Howells wrote, 'In these things of iron and steel the national genius speaks.' "

www.history.villanova.edu/centennial/corliss.html - "George H. Corliss was an inventor from Providence, Rhode Island. Although he is not responsible for the invention of the steam engine, he is responsible for bringing the phenomena to Fairmount Park in 1876. He also was the first to implement the vertical style, double-acting style steam engine. ... It stood in excess of forty-five feet above the floor and has cylinders of four-four inches in diameter with a ten foot stroke. Another characteristic is the huge fifty-six ton, thirty feet in diameter, and twenty-four inch face, flywheel which made up to thirty-six revolutions per minute (McCabe 158)."

George H. Corliss, inventor    George H. Corliss, inventor

www.columbiagorge.org/steam_engine.htm - "This stationary engine provided power to a sawmill at one time at Cascade Locks, Oregon and ended its career at Hemlock, north of Carson, Washington, Skamania County at the Wind River Lumber Co. (Carson Lumber Co.).

  • Engine was built by the Geo. H. Corliss Company in 1895.
  • Double action 20 inch bore x 48 inch stroke produces 350-400 horsepower.
  • 16 foot flywheel turned at 100 RPM.
  • Unique rope drive: approximately 1600 linear feet of 1 " Manila rope.
  • Single cylinder with double-action piston.
  • 120 pounds per square inch steam pressure.
  • Weight: 32 tons. (Wheel alone weighs 15 tons) "

members.aol.com/rjclayton/webdoc3.htm - "The story is true, and I find it fascinating. In the 18th Century, they believed that rationality would be the answer; in the 19th Century, it was technology."

papers.nber.org/papers/W8485 - "The enhanced performance of the Corliss engine as well as its fuel efficiency helped tip the balance in favor of steam in the fierce contest with waterpower."

www.bartbeck.com/page140.html, LeBart Beck - "When I stir up old memories of engines and their vicissitudes, my favorite always turns out to be the Corliss Steam Engine. When a person said "Corliss", they were referring to the type of valve action used in connection with a steam engine. The basis of the theory was a slow running engine, usually not more than 100 RPM, with a stroke of about three times the cylinder diameter."

people.clemson.edu/~pammack/lec323/centennial.htm, Pamila Mack -

  • "George Corliss was proud of the quality of his engines
  • the smooth quiet working of this intricate huge machine was something people stopped and watched
  • it was a symbol not just of American technological expertise but of power and centralization"

www.geocities.com/espee9164/corliss.html, Bruce Petty - "By 1900, the Corliss Engine had become the standard for industries to use. It would supply power to all of the machines in a factory. ... What made these engines really useful to industry was the savings in steam use. This was done with a patented valve design that for steam to be cut off quickly and then allow the steam to do its work by expanding in the cylinder pushing the piston to the end of its stroke. Then the valve opens at the other end pushing the piston back. The exaust ports worked much the same way to exaust the steam quickly."Monarch Corliss

www.vintagesaws.com/library/steam/steam.html, Monarch Corliss Engine near Smithville, TX - "George Corliss was not the inventor of the modern steam engine. James Watt is largely identified as the father of the modern steam engine. The watt, a unit of work, is named after James Watt. George Corliss is important as he invented a shuttle type valve which allowed the steam engine to be very efficient. From what I have read, before the Corliss valve, steam engines were limited in size and horsepower output due to the fact that the steam condensed inside the piston, drawing heat from the engine, slowing it down and robbing it of power. Corliss invented a valve which allowed the steam to quickly pressurize each side of the piston, moving it back and forth before the steam could condense."

Monarch Corliss Engine near Smithville, TX - From Vintagesaws.com

park.org/Cdrom/Pavilions/Kazakhstan/kazak_english.html - "Gradually the hall woke as over five miles of belts and shafts and pulleys started turning, delivering power to the vast array of machines. Three daily newspapers printed their editions in the hall. Machines sawed logs, printed wallpaper, and stuck pins automatically into paper, and sewing machines created new clothes faster than you could wear them. But do you know what really amazed people? The Corliss engine, sitting in the middle of this beehive of activity, the center of the show network, had one single attendant. And do you know what this keeper of the network operating center did? He sat on the platform and read his newspaper."

www.150.si.edu/chap4/engine.htm, Smithsonian Institution - "As for the inimitable Corliss, industrialist George Pullman bought it in 1880, four years after the Exposition; had it shipped to Chicago in 35 boxcars; and used it to power his sleeping-car works. After 30 years of grand service in the name of progress, it was sold as junk for $8 a ton."

columbus.gl.iit.edu/bookfair/00084006.html :

The Great Allis-Corliss Engine at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago



Copyright © 1995-2007 Dr. George F. Corliss, Marquette University, EECE -- All rights reserved. Send comments to (George.Corliss {at} Marquette.edu) Last modified: January 12, 2008