Animated Engines

Thursday, July 23, 2009
When I was a kid my brother owned a toy steam engine. It was similar to the Wilesco engine pictured to the right. You could connect a belt to its wheel and drive toy pieces of machinery with it. I remember it having a miniature table saw that could cut paper. We chopped up a lot of paper with that thing.

As you can imagine, it vastly entertained a young male's mind. There was an element of danger about it, with its little boiler of scalding water under pressure chugging away and, in our fevered imaginations, always ready to explode at any moment. Thus, we had great respect for the engine's pressure release valve. We fiddled with it endlessly to make sure it wasn't clogged.

However, the point of this post isn't really nostalgia. The other day I ran across a website called Animated Engines. The owner of it has methodically drawn frame by frame diagrams of engines with Autocad, which he then animates (and the speed of his animated gifs can be controlled). He's got 7 types of internal combustion engines, 10 steam engines, and 4 Stirling engines diagrammed. Quite fascinating to see all the approaches to building engines.

It was watching the animations of the steam engines that reminded me of my brother's toy. As much as we played with it, and as much as we fretted over the pressure release valve, watching the animation made me realize I never actually knew how it worked. Turns out the things had some really clever valve mechanisms to spin the drive wheel. The variety of their form is also interesting.

The site is worth spending a bit of time exploring.


Skookumchuk said...

Hey, I had one of those! (Or something very much like it.) What I really wanted though was a larger steam engine with lots of whirling ball governors and glass oil reservoirs with brass finials on top, but those were only to be found on the steamboat Mark Twain at Disneyland when we went there, I would spend the entire time looking at the engines.

It is interesting (speaking of the technology of steam engines) that the most advanced steam locomotive engines were built right before they lost the battle with diesels. They had advanced poppet valves, among other things, as detailed in Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive by J. Parker Lamb.

Great site, thanks.

chuck said...

Hey, I had one of those, I loved to play with it too. Ever since I've been intrigued by steam engines whenever I see them, whether on old locomotives or as displays in old sugar mills on Maui. Some of those old engines were pretty compact.

Speaking of which, My cousin and I once visited a retired engineer who built steam engines intended for cars and trucks. The engines had about a dozen small, two ended cylinders arranged like the barrels in a gatling gun with the pistons pushing against tilted ends pivoting around the central shaft. The fellow also had a Stanley steamer and another steam car whose make I forget. We all went for a nice little ride in the Stanley. Although "in" isn't quite the right word, it was an open car.

chuck said...

A White steamer, that's what the other car was.

Knucklehead said...


A few months back I was marveling at an old sugar mill steam engine. It was no doubt a small engine by sugar mill standards but very old and, apparently, needed little more than some cleanup to put back into operation.