Charles Talbot Porter

Charles Talbot Porter - Energy

During the mid-1800s, steam power drove machinery in large factories, spurred the development of new manufacturing systems, and revived dormant industries. Eventually, steam engines became powerful enough that they supplied power, water, and an effective means of sanitation to cities. They also helped produce electric lighting, transmit power, and transport merchandise by land or sea. Charles Talbot Porter (1826 – 1910) was a key inventor at the time, and was the first to create high-speed steam engines.

A Hamilton College graduate, Porter spent his early career as a lawyer in Rochester, NY. In Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age, Ross Thompson explains that Porter's work at the law firm introduced him to inventing. He invested in what turned out to be a scam by a non-paying client. Luckily, the swindle didn't stop him from pursuing another patent investment.

He investigated the next potential patent idea fully, discussing the concept with the head of the Scientific American Patent Agency. He purchased a patent for a steam-powered machine that cut, smoothed, and shaped blocks of stone, and formed the Porter Stone Dressing Machine Company.

His first prototype failed, but he built subsequent machines that were simpler and contained fewer moving parts than the competition at the time. His machine worked, and ads in the December 1855 Scientific American said they could cut 800 feet of quarry stone per day, the work of 50 men. Other stone-cutting techniques produced better results, ending his business.

Charles Talbot Porter - Energy

Porter developed high-speed steam engines.

This early business experience was quite valuable. Porter learned production techniques, gained design skills, and most importantly, noticed that small waves and grooves affected the speed of the cutting machine while cutting stone. He learned about high-speed operation from wood-planing and wood-molding machines, and saw its advantages while working in stone. The idea of combining high-speed operation with precision manufacturing led to his inventions that earned him international acclaim.

Porter invented an isochronous centrifugal governor to control the speed of an engine over time. According to Porter in his autobiography, the governor emulates the precision manufacturing techniques of machine tool producers, and regulates machines more precisely. The "Porter Governor" won medals at the 1859 American Institute fair.

Porter became interested in steam power while he was locating people and potential machines that could benefit from his governor. He collaborated with steamboat engineer John Allen, who had patented several ideas for overcoming a defect in marine engines. The two thought the engines could be suitable for high-speed operation, and for several years, Porter visited engine rooms, designed and adapted overhead cranks, flywheels, and pulley borings, and eventually measured engine efficiency.

Porter is best known as the first to realize high rotative speeds in steam engines. Higher-speed pistons developed higher-horsepower engines. He patented the high-speed engine and exhibited it at an engineering fair in Europe during the Civil War, earning international acclaim. Shortly after, he modified and patented the Richards Steam Engine Indicator, which was developed for him by a friend who was a professor. It monitored the steam pressure inside cylinders and was an extremely helpful tool for working with steam engines. Porter said in his autobiography that this indicator made high-speed engineering possible.

Although steamboats often used steam power in the 1850s, high-speed steam engines didn't become important until the 1880s when they could directly drive electric generators. Porter installed the first electric-drive high-speed engine for Thomas Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park in 1880. Shortly after, he constructed the first of a series of engines for steam dynamos, each independently driven by a direct -coupled engine for the Edison Station.

Porter was awarded the Fritz Metal in 1909, the highest engineering award for scientific or industrial achievement. It recognized his work in advancing the knowledge of steam-engineering and for improvements in engine construction.

In the ASME Proceedings of the 1909 Spring Meeting, Prof. F. R. Hutton credited Porter's pioneering work as greatly helping the reciprocating steam engine. He said, "The high-speed crank shaft reduced the weight of the motor per horsepower, springing the modern design of the motor for the self-propelled vehicle and for the aero-plane." High-speed operation solved many difficult problems relating to starting and stopping heavy parts of the mechanism during each revolution, which Porter recognized.

Hutton also credited Porter's recognition that the highest standards must apply to high-speed engine construction: "We owe to Mr. Porter many manufacturing details which now are commonplaces of modern practice."

Debbie Sniderman is CEO of VI Ventures LLC, a technical consulting company.

Porter learned production techniques, gained design skills, and most importantly, noticed that small waves and grooves affected the speed of the cutting machine while cutting stone.


June 2012

by Debbie Sniderman,