When I was a boy, my maternal grandfather showed me his small collection of photographs, which included two men looking proudly at an engine with a large flywheel and a single vertical cylinder. Beside the engine was sign which announced that this was “Oil Engine No.1.”
The photograph was undated. This photograph, unaccountably, is missing from the small gallery, mostly posed studio ambrotypes, which were a part of his scanty estate. Grandfather, slim and vigorous in workman’s clothing and a cloth cap, was one of the men in the vanished photograph. The other man, as I was told in a long ago conversation, was his chum, the inventor of an engine that was entirely new.
History does not know the name of the humble workman who dreamed and crafted the engine into being. Neither do I. Neither does any patent office anywhere in the world. The first patent for an internal combustion engine was assigned to an Englishman, Robert Street, in 1794. The first man to build one was Julius Hock of Vienna in 1870. The earliest internal combustion engines were fuelled by alcohol, When petroleum became available, its lighter distillations became competitive with wood alcohol, but were judged to be hazardous in use. This led to the development of engines which could run on heavy oil.
In 1886, Herbert Akroyd Stuart patented and produced a low-compression, four-cycle engine in which heavy oil was vaporized in a separate chamber and then sprayed into the main cylinder. Known as “hot bulb” engines, they were manufactured in the thousands by Richard Hornsby and Sons of England, beginning in 1891. Rudolf Diesels first heavy oil engine was marketed in 1892. By 1900, Diesel’s engines were running on peanut oil.
My grandfather and his chum were foundry workers in the huge industrial complex that grew up along the Tees River during the 19th century. When they began their apprenticeships the only fossil fuel was coal and the only engines were powered by steam. On the day the missing photograph was taken, all options were open as to what new engines would be developed and what new fuel sources there would be.
I have seen descendants of the Hornsby engine. Manufactured by Fairbanks-Morse, they once provided power for all grain elevators along the branch lines. They barked. Their bigger brother in the village power plant thundered. I have watched a roaring blow torch reddening the glow plug that heated its vaporising chamber.
Even Henry Ford was a part of the contest between fossil fuels and bio-fuels. His first automobile engine ran on hemp oil and body panels in the cars themselves were made from processed hemp. This leads to a question which was never answered in the past.
Can bio-fuels completely replace fossil fuels? And can the bio-fuel industry in North America find in hemp a rival to the cheap ethanol produced from Brazilian sugar cane?
North America has new options. All of them are open.