The Western Model 1900 "Ratchet" Type Engine
Western employees pose for a group photograph
in a machine shop area of the factory,
This article was originally written circa 1989, during the same time I was working on a book about the history of the Western Engine Company, a Los Angeles based company that began business in 1887 as the Western Iron Works. My grandfather, Jesse E. Hathaway, worked for the Western Iron Works, circa 1902-1903, and helped in the redesign of the Western Model 1900 "ratchet" style engine, turning it into something more durable and dependable. The Model 1900 was the first stationary engine design (that used distillate fuel) attempted by the Western Iron Works, but it was apparently temperamental and perhaps even downright troublesome. So, during the years 1902 to 1904 the ratchet type engine was phased out in favor of a more efficient and trouble free design, which evolved into the Model 1905 Geared engine. It was this new model that became the foundational design format employed by Western up until the company went out of business in 1938.
Ironically, while Jesse Hathaway helped create the exceedingly durable and practical Western Model 1905 engine, he somehow ended up installing the earlier and obsolete Model 1900 engine on the Hathaway Ranch. Thus, he put to work an engine of the old design that he, himself, had worked to make opsolete. There is no explanation for this turn-about. Maybe he was able to acquire a used Model 1900 for free, since they were outmoded by the time the Hathaway Ranch was begun in 1905. Whatever the case, the following story stands on its own merit, and turns out to be the only known detailed description of an operational Model 1900 engine. Rarer yet, is the Model 1900 engine itself—none are known to exist.
The first stationary engine installed by Jesse Hathaway (my grandfather) on the Hathaway Ranch was an early Western single cylinder distillate fueled engine, a Model 1900 engine (oftentimes referred to in the Western factory records as a "ratchet" engine). These early Western stationary engines were quite unusual in that they were an odd four-cycle engine advertised as “reversible,” meaning that they could be run in either direction—forward or backwards. This reversibility was accomplished by use of an ingenious "ratchet box" mechanism that not only governed the speed, but directly controlled the exhaust valve and ignition. Since all critical timing was controlled by this somewhat mysterious device, the engine was able to operate in the rotational direction in which it was started. Exactly how the "ratchet" mechanism functioned remains a mystery. The only surviving advertisement and the single factory workshop photograph depicting these early Model 1900 engines show the cast iron enclosure that surrounds the ratchet mechanism, but no details exist on what was hidden inside or how it worked. Only an eccentric mounted on the crankshaft, which in turn operated a pushrod that passed through the ratchet box, gives any clue as to what set the peculiar “ratchet” apparatus into action.
A northeastern view looking over the Hathaway Ranch, circa late 1920s.
Of the very few clues that exist as to the operation of the Model 1900 engine, this story offers more information on the engine's operation than any other yet known source. This story of the Hathaway Ranch begins in 1905, but the exact year the Western engine was installed remains unknown. My father, Julian I. Hathaway, was born in 1912 in the original Hathaway Ranch house, and what follows is partially based on my father's personal experience and on fragments of information he, and I (Terry Hathaway), remember hearing directly from Jesse Hathaway’s lips. The term "Coal oil" was used by my father to describe the fuel used by the engine, and this so-called "Coal oil" was bought from the Union Oil Company in the nearby town of Norwalk and "hauled to the site by horse and buggy in 50 gallon barrels." As a young lad in the 1940s I remember the term "Coal oil" in constant use around the Hathaway Ranch to describe what appeared to me to be kerosene. As such, I suspect that distillate, as used by "Western" engines, was basically similar or equivalent to the kerosene like fuels I remember being in use on the Hathaway Ranch, which were more viscous (or heaver) than gasoline, but much lighter than the thick, heavy crude oil fuels that could be burned in specially equipped engines.
Probably about 1905, or soon thereafter, Jesse Hathaway had a water well drilled adjacent to the family house (which, according to my father, the house was more of a 10 by 20 foot "box" than a house). A local driller by the name of Bill Morrow was hired and a team of horses hauled drilling equipment to the selected well site. Exactly what equipment was used to drill the well is unknown, but my Father clearly remembers being told by his father, Jesse Hathaway, that a team of horses walked around in a circle for about a month to furnish power to operate the drill rig. A hole was bored 16 inches in diameter some 60 feet into the earth; and when drilling was finally completed, a circular pit (centered on the new 16 inch diameter bore hole) 5 feet in diameter and 18 feet deep was dug by hand in order to place a centrifugal pump as close as was practical to the water level. Within the newly dug pit a sturdy timber framework was constructed which ran the full height of the circular excavation. Several horizontal cross-members at equally spaced intervals held rugged pillow blocks (bearings) which supported a vertical shaft. At the bottom of the pit a centrifugal pump was connected directly to the vertical shaft. Below the pump a 6-inch pipe stretched downward through the originally drilled hole into a steady supply of standing fresh water.
At the surface, roughly 20 feet from the well, a 15 to 20 H.P. Western "Coal oil" fueled engine was installed. The engine was coupled to the water well's pump by means of a wide flat belt wrapped around a large pulley bolted to one of the engine's flywheels and, in turn, to a small pulley fixed to the upper end of the centrifugal pump's vertically extended shaft. The difference in pulley sizes caused the pump to rotate much faster than the Western engine, thereby lifting a generous volume of water from the well. To cool the engine, a small centrifugal pump next to the engine pushed water upward through the engine's single cylinder and expelled the heated water in a small wooden water tank standing just outside the engine house (This engine, as described, differs from the one shown in the 1902 advertisement illustrated below in that the water pump was a belt driven centrifugal pump rather than the plunger type shown fastened to the working side of the engine). Since the water well and engine were very close to the family house my father vividly remembers the engine and hearing it chuff away under its steady load. Often he helped his father start the engine by tugging on the flywheels. Occasionally the engine would start but run backwards due to incorrectly hand tripping the initial ignition pulse. The engine would then have to be stopped and restarted, so as to enable the centrifugal water pump to run in the correct direction. No water could be lifted from the well if and when the centrifugal pump was spinning backwards.
Part of a 1902 advertisement for a Western Model 1900 "ratchet" engine.
Pumped irrigation water flowed from the well and was used to dampen acres of thirsty rows of Diamond Walnuts interspersed with fragrant orange trees. Between the carefully spaced rows of trees, alfalfa grew tall and green, nourished by the abundant supply of fresh water. While Jesse tended to regulating the flowing rivulets of irrigation water my father would often run back to the well house, climb down the ladder into the timbered pit and refresh the supply of lubricating oil in the various drip oilers on the water pump and vertical shaft bearings. Until his later years, my father was not allowed to touch the oilers on the engine. That was considered much too dangerous for a youngster. Many of the oilers were dangerously close to whirling parts and fast moving chunks of heavy iron, with one oiling wick nested deeply between the working side spinning flywheel and whirling crankshaft.
The Western engine was removed sometime in the early to mid 1920s. The well casing was extended to the surrounding ground level, the circular pit was filled and the water well was fitted with an electric motor. The Santa Fe Springs oil boom was in its full fury and the original bulky pump and engine house was in the way. Wooden derricks were being nailed together and oil wells noisily drilled their way into the deep subterranean oil and gas deposits on the very site of the original ranch house. Old family possessions were cleared away to make room for the new and prospering oil industry. The Western engine was hauled away to storage "in back of the barn" somewhere near today's ranch storage buildings, where it stayed until the early 1930s when it "disappeared." This water well existed until circa 2000-2001, when this oldest part of the sprawling Hathaway Ranch was being cleared and made ready for a modern commercial and industrial development. Consequently, for this property the few remaining oil wells in the area and all other remnants of the Ranch’s past were abandoned. This oldest part of the Ranch property was and is approximately 300 feet south of the rebuilt Slusher Carriage Barn (part of Santa Fe Springs’ Heritage Park).
I remember my grandfather telling me about the problems of ignition on this early style Western engine. It was built before Western engines used magnetos for sparking. Electrical power was supplied by a battery and ignition coil. Instead of a spark plug a mechanical "igniter" mechanism was used. This was a standard method for early engines and it consisted of a moveable electrical contact located within the combustion chamber and which could be made to contact a grounded stationary terminal. The two contacts were pushed together just prior to the exact time for ignition, and then allowed to snap open at the precise ignition moment. When the contacts snapped apart a hot inductive spark between the opening contacts ignited the combustible fuel mixture. The sparking voltage was supplied by an inductor coil connected in series with batteries and the ignitor. The ignitor was mechanically operated by a push-rod timed to operate in precise relation to a certain and exact rotational position of the crankshaft.
Diagram of a mechanical ignitor and
Within the body of the ignitor, a shaft, rotatable over a slight angle, penetrated through a mica packing gland. At its end the shaft formed a 90-degree angle to which was firmly attached an electrical contact pad. This part of the ignitor was located inside the combustion chamber. Outside, a short lever (or pawl), that projected outward from the rotatable shaft, was allowed to engaged the moving ignition push-rod, which, in this case, was controlled by the “ratchet box” mechanism. After a predetermined length of travel the push-rod would slip off the actuating lever (or pawl) allowing the internal contacts to rapidly snap open. As you can imagine, careful adjustment was required to permit the push-rod to disengage the ignitor at precisely the right moment. Wear not considered, it is paramount that the springs returning the contacts to the open position be strong and quick acting, and be able to overcome normal resistance and sludge buildup around the ignitor’s rotating shaft. Ignitor troubles, such as getting the contacts to snap open on time and do so consistently, were a constant issue according to my grandfather. It is not known whether the problem was actually in the igniter or the actuating linkages, but whatever the case, additional "springs" in the form of old hacksaw blades were somehow applied to assist the ignitor in snapping open. The hacksaw blades being quite brittle and very hard soon work-hardened and fractured, or, as I was told, lost their "spring" due to heat from the engine and had to be replaced. My father remembers having to run and get another hacksaw blade to get the engine back in service. Memories of exactly how the hacksaw blades were attached to the engine have fallen away, but it is odd that the problem was not solved in a more permanent manner. Western had manufactured this early style of engine for only a few years. Was this problem peculiar to the Hathaway Ranch's engine, or was it a mechanical problem inherent in the model 1900 engine's design. The answer is unknown, but, whatever the case, it must have been an irritating quirk to have the engine stop running just when it was sorely needed
My interest in early gas engines was not developed during the years Jesse Hathaway was alive (he passed away in 1960), and so I did not question and search out details regarding the subject when he would make an interesting but passing remark. Several times I overheard him comment on his early days with the Western Iron Works Company, and from these comments I knew he was directly involved in the redesign of the Western engine during his tenure, perhaps beginning circa 1901-03. Woefully little information has come to light that gives useful clues as to exactly how the first Western engines, the Model 1900, with the unusual ratchet mechanism, actually worked.
Jesse Hathaway had first hand information, detailed knowledge and hands-on experience of this vanished era, and my father remembers seeing papers and other related information pertaining to the beginning years of the Western Iron Works. But he, like me, did not pay much attention because this bountiful cornucopia of history did not seem special at the time, nor was it perceived to be threatened. Consequently, we had no consciousness that it might someday disappear. But, for whatever reason, Jesse systematically cleaned out most of his personal mementoes during the last years before his passing. On several occasions my Uncle, Richard F. (Dick) Hathaway, recalled entering the Ranch House and finding Jesse sitting in front of the dining room fireplace raking the ashes of discarded material, which was still smoldering. In retrospect, I regret not listening with greater attention to the words and experiences of this gifted California Pioneer.
In checking details for this story my father inadvertently mentioned a humorous incident pertaining to the water well. In the mid to late 1920s, when oil wells dotted part of the Hathaway Ranch orchards, the water well was used alternately for both irrigation and supplying water for oil drilling and pumping operations, for which the large steam boilers required a lot of water. My father spent most of his time around the oil well operations, observing them with great interest and fascination, watching this exciting industry evolve as he carried out his chores irrigating and maintaining the orchards. A galvanized iron water tank sitting atop an 8 foot high wooden structure had been erected next to the water well to serve as storage for the needs of the oil operations (such as feeding the boilers, etc.). For several months my father had noticed that a truck carrying a water tank would pull up to the water tower and the driver would get out and fill its tank with water. Nothing was said until one day he noticed the same truck now carried a load of individual water bottles, each bottle bearing the name of "Sparkletts" on the side. He then told his father (Jesse Hathaway) that some guy with a truck was taking water and selling the bottled water around the oil field. As you might imagine, the next time the truck pulled up to the water tower the driver was met by Jesse Hathaway. A financial arrangement was quickly struck and from that time onward the "Sparkletts" man paid Jesse $60.00 per month to fill his water bottles from the galvanized iron storage tank through an old rubber hose.
Contributors to this article include the late Julian I. Hathaway and his son, the author, Terry Hathaway.
Hathaway Ranch Museum Archive, Greg Johnson, and Terry Hathaway.