Steam engines obsolete when they were erected here

While steam engine technology was evolving, both in Great Britain and in the U.S., the directors of the Pittsburgh & Boston Mining Company, which owned the Cliff Mine, decided it was time to progress beyond horse whims for hoisting, they opted for the standard steam-powered Cornish beam engine. The probable reason for the decision is that the directors, including Curtis Hussey, trusted the mine agent, Captain Edward Jennings, a Cornish engineer, to selecting the proper technology. Jennings turned to Cornish engine builder, Nicholas Vivian. From there, the history of steam in the Copper Country reads like a Who’s Who of the Cornish engineering world.

The British publication, “Iron: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Iron and Steel Manufacturers, Metallurgists, Mine Proprietors, Engineers, Shipbuilders, Scientists, Capitalists, Vol. 40, 1844,” ran in article in which it stated that Nicholas Vivian visited and reported on his inspection of “the engine for raising and lowering miners at Tresavean.” The Tresavean Mine, located in Lanner, Cornwall, roughly two miles southeast of Redruth, and was the first mine in which a man engine was installed, the engine Vivian inspected. The engine was installed by Michael Loam in 1842 to relieve the miners there of the 1,730-foot ladder climbs in and out of the mines.

Vivian reported that he used the man engine to descend to the bottom of the mine, returned “to grass, then walked the five miles to his home in Camborne. The article states: “Mr. Vivian said that they had every assistance and attention, for which they were equally obliged, from Captain Jennings.”

While the hoisting engine at the Cliff had been manufactured and erected by Vivian, the Report of the President and Directors of the P&B Mining Company for the year 1847 states that the Cliff Mine’s stamp mill and its engine were “made under the direction of Mr. A. A. Hayes, of Roxbury.”

The 1853 Mining Magazine published an article including an overview of the machinery at the Cliff Mine, near Keweenaw Point, which stated, in part:

“The work of pumping the mine, and of raising the ore and rock, is performed by a steam engine (Vivian’s), while another large lever-beam engine, of upright form and of great power, performs the stamp work (Hayes’).”

The article went on to say that the stamps carried 24 heads and “are the most perfect and efficient upon Lake Superior.”

In the Ontonagon district, the National Mine was organized in Sept. 1852, six years after the Cliff mine began earnest workings; both mines were under the same management. The National conducted its hoisting using horse whims, according the 1856 Mining Magazine. In the company’s annual report for that year, James M. Cooper, the company’s secretary and treasurer, proposed the installation of a steam engine to replace the whims. The engine he described was a not the typical beam engine, but rather a new type of engine that would employ slide valves that applied steam on one side of the piston to push it forward, while a partial vacuum operated on the other side of it, in other words, a double-acting engine. When the piston was on the return stroke, the valve opened on the other side of the piston to push it back, while the vacated steam on the other side created a partial vacuum to assist the steam in driving the piston back to its starting point. But as with any steam technology of the time, slide valves were inefficient. But even as mining companies in the Lake Superior district were erecting engines based on the design of James Watt, with slide valves to regulate high-pressure steam, they were already obsolete. In 1849, a former rural store clerk in Rhode Island had solved the inefficiencies of slide valves.

Linda Hall Library of science, engineering and technology described the inefficiency, saying: “The problem with sliding valves is that they are constantly exposed to a wide temperature range, as the steam cools and condenses, which means they expand and contract incessantly, and it is difficult to regulate the beginning and end of each cycle with precision.”

In 1849, George H. Corliss applied for a patent for “a novel kind of valve gear for a stationary steam engine,” as Linda Hall Library described the invention.

Corliss, the library site explains, invented a set of four rotary valves, each linked to a central rotating device called a wrist plate. Each valve remained at a constant temperature, and the intake cut-off points could be regulated with great precision. As a result, a Corliss engine was about 30% more efficient than a Watt engine. Corliss engines could also run at a constant speed under a variety of loads, due to a clever system of governors that were also included in the 1849 patent, which was a very useful feature for an engine being used to power a factory.

Corliss’ engine was responsible for the rise of giant textile centers, according to the Henry Ford Museum, such as Fall River, in Massachusetts. As Author As Gray, PhD, wrote in his article, “The Spectacle of American Invention,” which is posted on henryford.org, “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.”

The concept of a steam engine that could respond to varying speeds under varying loads could — and would — prove incredibly beneficial to the mines of the Lake Superior mining district, both in the copper region and in the iron country and would begin appearing in the Copper Country in the latter part of the 19th century.


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