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Historic Corliss Steam Engine right here in York, Pennsylvania; Part 1

Illustration showing Steam Flow through the Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engine powering a YORK Vertical A-Frame Ammonia Compressor (2013 S. H. Smith Illustration)
Illustration showing Steam Flow through the Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engine powering a YORK Vertical A-Frame Ammonia Compressor (2013 S. H. Smith Illustration)

After my presentation on the First 60-Years of York Manufacturing Company and York Ice Machinery Corporation at the Agricultural and Industrial Museum, as a Second Saturday Program, the huge 1904 A-Frame Ammonia Compressor was demonstrated.  Questions arose, that I’m answering in greater detail via YorksPast.  Related posts include:

A question arose about the type of steam engine and the flow of steam.  My illustration shows the flow of steam through the steam engine powering the YORK Vertical A-Frame Ammonia Compressor.

The 1901 York Manufacturing Company Catalog noted the type of steam engine utilized; a Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engine.  I examined several stationary steam engine books, however my primary reference is Nehemiah Hawkins’ 1904 book New Catechism of the Steam Engine for details about this engine’s steam flow.  These steam engines were widely used to power industrial America into the early 1900s, however they were rapidly replaced with the advent of electric motors; few Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engines of this size still exist.



The Corliss Steam Engine is named for George Corliss.  George was issued U. S. Patent No. 6162 on March 10, 1849 for a steam engine with a unique arrangement of steam admission and steam exhaust valves.  His valve arrangement and control resulted in superior efficiency, smooth running speed and automatic response to changes in load.  I’ll discuss the internals of the Corliss Steam Engine in greater detail in part 2.

Most Corliss Steam Engines were sold complete; i.e. engines, driving a shaft and flywheel onto which a belt drove an overhead line shaft or another piece of machinery.  For the YORK Compressor application, more robust bearings and added mass to the flywheel were required.  Therefore York Manufacturing Company was just purchasing the drive cylinder parts of the steam engines; as indicated in the illustration at the beginning of this post.

Steam Flow in Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engine

The high-pressure steam from the boiler enters the high-pressure cylinder.  The steam acts upon the high-pressure piston and exhausts as low-pressure steam.  The low-pressure steam exits through the bottom of the high-pressure cylinder and all remaining steam piping and connections are below or at floor level.

In a cross-compound steam engine, this low-pressure steam is utilized once more, but first it enters a receiver.  The receiver stores the low-pressure steam for a brief instant, until the precise instant when the low-pressure cylinder requires the steam.

A cross-compound steam engine operates smoothly because it produces staggered power pulses.  This is accomplished by mechanically connecting the high-pressure and low-pressure steam engines to the compressor shaft such that when the high-pressure piston is at an extreme travel position the low-pressure piston is at mid-travel.  The receiver is necessary to store the low-pressure steam until the low-pressure piston travels to an extreme travel position and the internal inlet valve opens.

The low-pressure piston is of larger diameter than the high-pressure piston because one wants each side of the cross-compound steam engine to produce the same magnitude of force on the compressor shaft.  In order to produce the same force that the high-pressure piston exerts; with a lower-pressure, one needs a bigger surface.

Any condensate that collects in the high-pressure and low-pressure cylinders will occasionally need to be drained.  The steam exhausting the low-pressure cylinder can be condensed and re-used in the boiler or vented to the atmosphere.

This photo shows the installation of the Cross-Compound Corliss Steam Engine on the YORK Vertical A-Frame Ammonia Compressor.  The high-pressure side of the steam engine is closest to the viewer in the lower right of this photo.


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