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General Electric steamers

Posted by frustrated 
General Electric steamers
April 07, 2021 08:31AM
Hi All:

GE built a number of steam cars back around the end of the 19th and opening of the 20th centuries. These used a number of boiler, engine, and control systems -- some of them quite unique. What really set them apart from contemporaries like Stanley is that they used uniflow engines and, when good superheat was applied, produced about twice as much horsepower per pound of steam consumed. If they had gone into production, these horseless carriages would be real collector's items today -- but the company decided that the market was insufficient, which was exactly true at the moment they made the decision.

Does anyone out there know of any publications or informational sources regarding GE steamers? I'm trying to do a write-up for a book and, so far, am mostly finding some biographical data on people involved with the project and am spending significant time analyzing patent filings. It would be nice to have some information regarding the project and the cars themselves.


Re: General Electric steamers
April 08, 2021 03:38AM
Get some drawings and no doubt some brave person will build one!


Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/08/2021 03:39AM by Mike Clark.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 09, 2021 07:49AM
Heck, Tom Kimmel has a duplicate of the wobbler engine used in at least one car. Unfortunately, I am not turning up a lot in the way of drawings, since they never went into production. The GE uniflow engines were using less than half the steam of a Stanley or Locomobile, so there's a lot to be said for them.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 09, 2021 08:47AM
Skinner Unaflow
Will give you a good idea of great economy of the unaflow engine.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 09, 2021 09:33AM
Hi Rolly,

In 1898, Elihu Thomson was hoping to get about 30 lbs per hp-hr. This was pretty ambitious, given that engines like those in the Locomobile were close to around 50. As it was, he ended up right around 20 pounds and by 1901 he was getting about 17-1/2 pounds per horse-power hour...or roughly three times better efficiency. Besides uniflow exhaust, he was running poppet valves which allowed GE to safely run higher superheat -- his exhaust was invisible, showing that there was no in-cylinder condensation. Beside that, the poppet valves may have permitted a reduction in clearance volume, which would also be of some benefit.

What's interesting is that he didn't just stumble onto the uniflow, I found an 1898 article in which he is arguing with another engineer who didn't think that uniflow mattered. Thomson pretty clearly laid out how running cool exhaust through the cylinder head was wasteful and sort of hinted that compression wasn't a bad thing -- though he didn't go so far as to recognize that it partially offset the bad effects of clearance. In his original patent for the engine, there is even a variant with a bump valve, putting him about 65 or 70 years ahead of the 1960s and 70s craze.


Re: General Electric steamers
April 09, 2021 10:13AM
GE did some more recent work on steam engines. See [nepis.epa.gov]

Lohring Miller
Re: General Electric steamers
April 11, 2021 11:04AM
Ken there has been some recent news that might be of interest and relates to this thread. This company is going to release this design for manufacture and put it into some semi diesel trucks.

Opposed Piston Engine

Here the thought process would be to use an opposed engine configuration in a steam engine. Good concept? Jim Crank offered his take on it...

Opposed Piston by SSsssteamer

The main idea in answer to a low water rate engine is to utilize maximum expansion, work from the steam. This would be a uni-flow and provide for excellent adiabatic operation. This is contrary to one of the main cons against the classic double acting steam engine. Hence Rolly's offering of the Skinner Uni-flow.

I remember Karl Peterson presenting a Cyclone concept at one of the SACA meets, a con rod activated valve in the piston to relieve and still add in some compressing at the end of the stroke. The development of this con-rod valve and the opposing piston would provide for a great water rate. This is of course with torque matched to rpm.

I have no clue what steam engine GE produced. In my experience with GE Aircraft Engines in Lynn, MA and GE Locomotive in Erie, PA, they would lean toward a high torque, low rpm compound engine. Let us throw in a reheat after the HP just for giggles along with self starting from a stall. My guess??

One last thought on the opposing piston steam engine, make it a compound like the Skinner. This would really be a nice lb/hr-hp engine.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 11, 2021 10:13PM
Hi Rick,

I read about that engine a couple of days ago, I get some SAE online magazines. The interesting thing is that much of the efficiency seems to come from flow dynamic computational models -- which are pretty much independent of the opposed piston configuration. This would imply that the Jimmy two stroke diesel configuration would similarly benefit. The basic Jimmy is pretty simple, just one valve, and uniflow ports. It has a blower, but the opposed-cylinder two-stroke will also need one.

From a practicality standpoint, the two-stroke Jimmy has some advantages over 2-stroke opposed-cylinder engines. Crankshafts are expensive and eliminating one of the little buggers holds prices down. The need for an additional geartrain to synchronize the cranks is adding more cost...did I mention, the weight is likely to also climb significantly and we are now also going to have a longer engine since there is an added gear train not used in other layouts. Another advantage is accessibility-- we can either yank a head or pull the pan to get to the internals -- both of which can be accomplished in the vehicle; I really don't see this being done on an opposed-cylinder engine. Lastly, the Jimmy configuration easily fits existing vehicle structures and powertrains -- obviously, given how many trucks, busses, and heavy equipment have been fitted with them (not to mention a fair number of retrofitted pickup trucks). The opposed cylinder engine has to be laid down horizontally because it is too tall to fit in a typical engine bay. In rear-wheel-drive vehicles, this has the unfortunate effect of putting the cranks on either end of the engine rather than the centerline, where we really want it. Having tried to work on both my parent's and sister's Subarus, I can also say that I am not a fan of flat engines laid down sideways in an engine bay (excepting the original VW) -- if modern vehicles aren't user friendly, these beasts took matters to a whole new level. Anyhow, if Achates is really getting high efficiency due to flow dynamic calculations, then the opposed-cylinder engine isn't the only game in town.

Honestly, I see no advantages to compound engines. In high pressure steam systems, they tend to have a lot of piston ring blowby in the HP cylinder -- Dutcher Industries found this out and Jay Carter told me his experiments came up with the same answer. According to Dutcher, they weren't able to get a fix even with more rings -- and efficiency suffered. The problem is that the MEP in the HP cylinder is a lot higher than in a single-expansion cylinder, giving more time for leakage to get underway. This isn't really an issue in hobbyist or antique engines, but modern high-performance cars are going to be operating at far higher pressures. Beyond that, advanced uniflow engines typically meet -- or exceed -- compound efficiency. For one thing, there is no lost energy due to pressure drop between stages. Beyond that, the plumbing needed to transfer steam between stages introduces more opportunity for heat losses. Then there's the cost factors -- single expansion engines are simply cheaper. From a manufacturing standpoint, economies of scale are hard to ignore. An engine using only one type of piston, rod, ring, wristpin and so on is cheaper than an engine using multiple components -- you are spending less money to set up production tooling for just one item and you can run the line at higher efficiency as volume rises...

Venting a uniflow through the piston isn't a new idea. (I should clarify that it is a variant of semi-uniflow expansion, which I personally think is about the best design for a high-pressure automotive engine.) The Cyclone design was almost exactly identical to an engine patented in the 1970s, as I pointed out at that meet ... see attached patent. The basic concept was hardly new almost 50 years ago, this was just a variation on a concept that went back to about the 1920s, or maybe earlier...I believe you can find it in the 2nd edition of the Stumpf book. I admit that it is an alluring concept, and I've looked at trying to implement it myself.

Honestly, a potential issue with the Cyclone and Divine engines might be that they use reed valves directly exposed to steam.

At very high temperatures, you are going to need superalloys to keep the reeds springy -- Jay Carter told me how hideously expensive this gets what with specialized heat treatment. I spent a few misbegotten years working on high pressure-high compressors in the navy and, while they weren't running anywhere near steam temperatures, the lifespan of the reed valves wasn't vaguely adequate for a modern automobile.

What keeps bothering me with valve in piston designs that use a poppet valve is that it would be exceedingly difficult to program the valve acceleration profile, which might lead to premature failure -- there's a reason they invented polynomial cam profiles, and why Art Gardiner fitted them on the PSL engine. I am also not sure that it is a huge advantage over an aux. exhaust valve in the head. True, you will get some energy loss as cool exhaust goes out the head but this is limited by two factors -- steam engines with separate exhaust valves are much more efficient since incoming hot steam and outgoing cold steam do not share the same passage. Secondly, most of the steam leaves through the uniflow port so we are getting most of the thermal advantage of a pure uniflow. The improvement in clearance value offered by a semiuniflow likely offsets any thermal disadvantage and probably offers an overall gain. The fact that you get a smoother torque delivery throughout a revolution and higher power output for identically sized engines having identical cutoff and rpm is also alluring.

Ugh, way too late and I need to be up at 5.


open | download - 3910160.pdf (328 KB)
Re: General Electric steamers
April 12, 2021 05:05AM
Good discussion Ken.

Your original question intrigue me about this GE Steam Car. Here is what I could find...

Thompson Uniflo Steam Engine

I attached the picture and interesting that they developed a mono-tube boiler with the uniflow. They even go so far as to call it a flash boiler. This changes the game significantly. As speculation, this would be similar to the British flash steam systems used in the model Hydrofoil Boats.

So here is a new guess as to how this system worked. In summary, it worked in favor of what a Williams Engine, Jay Carter and along the lines of Johann Stumpf (engineer). Stumpf

Note that his uniflow design produced minimal efficiency improvements. The uniflow design was proven in a Steam Locomotive. This is in the same time period of the GE Steam Car.

So I lament about my previous post. The engine would be just the opposite of what I describe. In other words, it would be a high rpm, poppet valve engine or even bash valve. In order to get a low steam rate, the engine would not have an exhaust valve. The re-compression on the return of the piston to TDC will conserve the steam. However, lower MEP will require high rpm and a flywheel to achieve hp. It would require crank starting.

The pictured car might be likable to a go-cart with a clutch that smoothed the power cycle much like the IC engine. You don't hear about any slick mono-tube control. This is what leads me to the clutch to put the flash boiler into some type of control power to the wheels.

This concept at the time was new and without much traction. People were of the impression given a history of direct drive locomotives that start from a stall without some type of transmission. This is why the Stanley, Doble and Besler continued to make history.

Re: General Electric steamers
April 12, 2021 07:41AM
Hi Rick,

I'm still working on the article and haven't even gotten to the control systems -- yet -- they patented a plethora of the things. All that said, they tried to steal the Newcomb flowmotor, just like Rollin White did, later. I have no idea why people couldn't just pay royalties to Edward C. Newcomb. GE also patented a few different monotube boilers and also that weird cast metal finned deal I put in the Bulletin a while back -- not to mention a small array of burners. You have to treat the term flash boiler with car as it was, and is, used pretty loosely. As near as I can tell, GE was building semi-flash boilers, or essentially conventional monotubes. Serpollet started out building real flashers but soon gave that up because they tended to burn out a lot.

It's hard to pigeonhole their efforts since they built wobbler engines, inline four, a single cylinder demonstrator, and something that mounted on the rear axle in more traditional style. They even invented a bash valve, I think before 1900. Their goal was to try to tie up the steam car market by patenting everything useful but, eventually, that turned out to be a hopeless cause...in any case, the effort was a reaction to a dip in the electrical components market and when that came back it was much more profitable than automobiles would be for a number of years.



Oh, and let's not forget a variety of electric vehicles including gasoline/electric hybrids!

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/12/2021 07:43AM by frustrated.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 12, 2021 12:33PM
Hi Ken,
A quick question and an aside, at least a full page or two will come of this I'm sure...tongue sticking out smiley

You say GE produced a Semi-flash boiler. Testing my understanding, this is a mono-tube that is near to red hot where one pumps water through it in a controlled way? Perhaps some method of performing a variable by-pass is used? Before you comment, I read the post:

Flash Steam Hydroplane

Note that I love Jim Crank's responses...I just like his thinking.

Also researched Flash Boiler

I guess the agreement would be that a true flash boiler just pumps water into red hot mono-tube uncontrollably or in other words without variation of the by-pass. Do I have it correct?

Then let's open up Pandora's box, does a true flash boiler need to be a tube? Bill Ryan would agree to use two (2) flat plates approximately 0.030" apart, four (4) inches long and one (1) inch wide to create 17 lbs/hr. The mass and thermal inertia along with the fluid flow rate needs to be significant.

Lastly, and this relates to timing on patents, could GE have come up with a Semi-Flash control at the same time, independently, as Serpollet? Calling it Semi-Flash or vise-versa as to not conflict with Serpollet?

Kind regards,
Re: General Electric steamers
April 12, 2021 07:55PM
Hi Rick,

Those are good sources. The flash and semi-flash boilers are essentially the same in that they are both once-through designs -- pump water into one end and steam comes out the other. The flash boiler is kept red hot and water "flashes" into steam on contact -- which is easier said than done due to the Leidenfrost effect -- which is what lets a drop of water dance on top of a frying pan for an extended period without boiling. Basically, the heat is enough to cause a film of steam to form against the metal wall, this film supports the droplet so that it doesn't touch the metal evaporate rapidly (the effect also depending on the fact that steam is kind of a sucky thermal conductor). This is why the original Serpollet boilers had flattened tubes -- if you make the gap small enough, the water droplets have no choice other than to remain in contact.

Semi-flash boilers progressively heat the water until it undergoes nucleate boiling...every monotube you have ever seen at a SACA meet, or in a White, or Doble, is a semi-flash. Of course, since flash boilers rapidly disappeared from the scene, people referred to semi-flash boilers as flashers, because simplicity.

We can consider the control system to be the real dividing line between the two systems. Flash boilers simply throw a lot of heat at the tube and make steam -- semi-flash boilers mutually regulate feed water and combustion to produce steam at a prescribed pressure and temperature. It should be noted that semi-flash boilers are a LOT more efficient. Cold water entering a flash boiler is hitting red hot tubing and, therefore, the combustion gasses leaving the flash boiler are extremely hot. Cold water entering a semi-flash boiler contacts relatively cold tube and the water progressively heats as it meets hotter and hotter tubing as the tubing approaches the fire. The cool economizer tubing, being at the end of the gas flow, absorbs the lowest level heat from the combustion gasses and therefore the boiler emits relatively cool gasses.

There is nothing that says that a flash boiler has to be built with tubing, but it simply make a lot more sense. Pressure vessels are spherical or cylindrical because the load is evenly distributed throughout the structure, giving it the higest possible strength for the mass. A plate, on the other hand, is subjected to greater bending loads the further you get from the edge. Anyhow, a boiler made of flat plates is going to be massive. As an example, look at the weight of each firetube in a Stanley boiler, and then contrast that to the tube sheets on the top and bottom ends -- those tubes come out much, much better. Or, to think of it another way, tubes are the default setting. Imagine that we take two slices of thin plastic that are 5 feet long and 2 inches wide. Now, suppose we weld them together on the edges and add a pressure fitting. Once you add air pressure, the flat plate shape will become more and more tube-like until it can't stretch any further.

GE certainly could build semi-flash control systems. EC Newcomb certainly did, so did Rollin White, among others around the year 1900. Come to that matter, so did GE. That weird finned boiler I posted in the Bulletin a while back was built by GE and it had a built-in thermostat to regulate the boiler. Honestly, though, control schemes were a bit unevenly distributed right around the year 1900. The Newcomb flowmotor was, by all reports, excellent. White was OKish until they added the flowmotor later in the decade. Serpollet tended to use a degree of manual input, as did some of the GE designs. We have to remember that there were an awful lot of steam plants in the world by this time, some doing such things as operating laundries or driving elevators -- boiler controls were reasonably well developed in many ways.


Re: General Electric steamers
April 13, 2021 10:50AM
Now, I gotta ask, was this a weird boiler, or what?

Re: General Electric steamers
April 13, 2021 11:25AM
I have seen this once before, can’t remember where. I did not under stand the theory behind the design,

Raytheon years ago did a study on heat transfer when they needed to cool radar tubes.

Heat radiates in all directions at the same speed as light. Hot gases flow two ways, in laminar flow and turbulent flow. Turbulent flow of gases tend to wrap the gases around a object, tube layout determines how the gases flow. laminar flow tends to flow to the least resistance. Like in a fire tube boiler right up the center of the tube. Turbulent flow can do four times the work (heat transfer) then laminar flow. There is a lot more to it but it’s a study in itself.

Re: General Electric steamers
April 13, 2021 12:13PM
Hi Rolly,

The concept is actually pretty simple, it's just that the patent confuses things. In principle, this thing is basically just a finned monotube steam generator. The inner and outer cylinders fit tightly together, causing the helical groove to act just like a tube. The projections on the inside and outside are just fins that promote turbulent combustion gas flow and act as heat exchange surfaces. The outer cylinder fits inside a boiler casing, so that gas must pass through the projections, which is the same reason for the asbestos core, it has a cap on one end so that it acts like a plug, preventing combustion gasses from freely flowing through the middle of unit and forcing them to interact with the projections. I think they went with projections rather than fins because they could cut them out with a lathe and a shaper. Somewhere in there, they added a thermostat element to the housing so that it is a real semi-flash boiler.

I have to admit, the burner is simply funky and I have to wonder if recreational drugs were involved.

The inventor, Thomson was a genius who worked in a number of fields, especially electrical, Thomas Edison was his biggest competitor and eventually Edison merged with Thomson-Huston to form General Electric. Back in 1877, Thomson invented arc welding and it's a good bet that the inner and outer cylinders were probably welded together to form a tight seal.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/13/2021 12:15PM by frustrated.
Re: General Electric steamers
April 14, 2021 07:25AM
Thompson was a smart man. He understood boundary layer theory pretty well as evident with this design.

If he developed this in the early 1900's, then he was ahead of his time. Comparing the other boilers of the time like the Stanley (Firetube) and even compared to the White (Monotube).

A gentle reminder to all pertaining to boundary layer. As Rolly stated above; the higher the fluid speed, turbulent flow, the better the heat transfer. This is exponential in relation to heat transfer, almost to the fourth power. Fundamentally, this is reason for a steam blower, in operation, will increase boiler pressure. Even at the expense of blowing off steam.

I generated the attached graph using values from an article on the net. Consider this a good approximation of the relationship of heat transfer to velocity. The plot specifically is heat transfer coefficient (Hc) on the Y-axis and fluid velocity on the X-axis. The other attachment shows the difference of laminar to turbulent flow. On the left side is laminar, turbulent on the right. Specifically, it represents the temperature profile in reference to the heat transfer (U) profile. Think of U as lbs/ft^2-hr as the steam generation capacity.

Lastly, this concept was well known in the steam locomotive industry. Throughout locomotive history a large emphasis was put on exhausting steam to draw the hot gases through the firetubes, quickly. Thompson packaged it in a new way to maximize heat transfer...Very Nice!

Hope this also helps to explain Ken's post. Hope this was interesting...

Re: General Electric steamers
April 14, 2021 12:32PM
Hi Rick,

It isn't even necessarily all about turbulent air flow. In the last month, I have seen photos of TWO home-built boilers where the tube arrangement was such that you could look clear through the boiler from top to bottom. In both of these cases, turbulent flow hardly matters because the flow will follow the path of least resistance -- which means it will mostly avoid the tubes. It's kind of frustrating that you see things like this...
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File Name File Size   Posted by Date  
3910160.pdf 328 KB open | download frustrated 04/11/2021 Read message
GE Steam Car.jpg 587.1 KB open | download Rick.H 04/12/2021 Read message
A.png 797.2 KB open | download frustrated 04/13/2021 Read message
Heat Transfer Coefficient vs Velocity.png 235.1 KB open | download Rick.H 04/14/2021 Read message
Boundary Layer ConvHF1.gif 5.2 KB open | download Rick.H 04/14/2021 Read message