The Historian: ‘Hit and miss’ engines were a hit with farmers

Editor’s Note: This column is part one of an extended piece.

Around the year 1900, “hit and miss” one cylinder, stationary, gasoline engines revolutionized farming. The term “ hit and miss” is a modern description of the “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-PUTT-whoosh” sound they make as the engine, by design, misses firing.

Today these engines are prized by collectors who lovingly restore them to perfect running order to show them at historical fairs and festivals. Individual collectors have them by the dozens and search the country for additions to their hoard. Common ones can be bought starting at about $500.00, running or not, and the more exotic ones can fetch $75,000.00 and up. The fascination perhaps comes from the ingeniously complicated mechanical “works” that are exposed to view and open for tinkering. Most have no crank-case, so the piston, connecting rod, and drive shaft are all open to view as they run.

Although called stationary, the engines were almost always mounted on iron wheeled dollies that could be moved to different work places on the farm. Weighing from several hundred to over a thousand pounds, each cast iron engine found multiple uses. For the first time ever, mechanical power was available to the small scale farm. Up until then, power, if available, came only from large, expensive, and impractical steam engines or water wheels. The gasoline engine began a new era because now work on small farms could be done by something other than muscle power alone.

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With the engines came a parade of new applications for that power: at the barn such things as feed grinders, corn shellers, wood saws, water pumps, and fodder cutters became available from a host of manufacturers. Marketed specifically for the ladies were small, one-half horsepower engines to power washing machines, butter churns, even ice cream makers.

The first engines appeared about 1890, but by the early 20th century the number of manufacturers was no doubt in the hundreds. Philadelphia alone had over twenty different brands of engines being made there. It’s safe to say that around here almost every farm had one or two by 1910. In New Hanover the most popular brands were the Domestic, manufactured in Shippensburg and the New Holland.

The smallest engines developed one-half horsepower and the larger ones just five or six. Although, if you see a six horsepower New Holland “hit and miss” engine weighing over a thousand pounds and powering a rock crusher it’s hard to accept that it develops less horse power than a modern lawn mower. The piston is massive with a long stroke and it runs with authority!

To make engines useable, the technical problem to be solved was how to keep the engine running steadily under varying loads. In your car, your foot on the gas pedal does that, but an engine needs some sort of self regulating speed control. The solution for most manufacturers was the centrifugal governor.

Part of the fascination of these machines is the ingenious and complex governors developed to maintain a constant speed as the loads varied. Most hit-and-miss engines had a horizontal piston with two heavy flywheels connected to the ends of the crankshaft. If the engine were spinning at the desired speed, the exhaust valve was held open and there was no compression and no engine firing. This created the “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” sound as the piston idled back and forth pushing air in and out of the cylinder through the open exhaust valve.

On one of the flywheels was mounted a flat pulley from which a belt three to six inches (or more) wide delivered power to the nearby implement. The other flywheel had a small weight suspended by springs and slotted into one of the spokes. This weight could push levers that were attached to a rocker arm that could close the exhaust valve. As the rotation of the wheel slowed, the weight was drawn toward the center of the wheel where it nudged a lever that closed the exhaust valve. With the exhaust valve closed the piston created suction that opened the intake valve and drew in the fuel/air mixture which, just as in a modern engine, was compressed and detonated by an igniter at the right moment. The engine emitted one loud “PUTT” as the power stroke spun the flywheel faster. The faster spin caused centrifugal force to move the weight toward the wheel’s rim again which canceled firing until it slowed and the weight was drawn back down and the cycle repeated. Under heavy load it would fire on every other stroke, just idling, every sixth or eighth stroke.

The larger ones cost up to $200 dollars which was a lot of money at the time, but by 1910 or ‘20 they were a “must have” on the farm and unknown thousands were produced. Some had names like Bulldog, Monmouth, Hercules, or International, but most simply used the manufacturers names such as Emmerson Brantingham, Fuller Johnson, Cushman, Parcell and Reed. The John Deere Company was making them all the way up to World War II. But about this time technology has made them obsolete, so some farmers were battering them to pieces to sell for scrap.

Next week — Part 2