Hot Air as a Motor

Source : From the New York Tribune
Title: Hot Air as a Motor
Date: January 13, 1853.

There is no good reason for the scepticism with which the announcement of Captain Ericsson’s final success is still received in some influential quarters. There is nothing essentially improbable in what he claims, and what all intelligent men, who have examined the subject, believe that he has accomplished. He professes to use a very simple and well-known agency, namely, the expansive power of air, acted upon by heat. That there is such a power no one can deny.

It is as familiar as the power of water when similarly acted upon. We know that steam is used to drive machinery; why, then, refuse to admit that hot air may be used for the same purpose? Or at least why reject, without examination, the testimony of so many judicious and cool minded men, who have looked at the matter, and affirm that the hot air engine is actually built and ready to work, with greater cheapness than steam, and perfect safety? Why should our great steamboat owners and shipping merchants longer persist in the notion that the whole thing must be entirely a delusion?

After all, there is nothing surprising in the continued doubt. The grander the character of a novel principle or newly discovered agency, the more certainly do the mass of men receive it with distrust. We accept the news of failure without hesitation, but the intimations of success we are slow to confide in. Had the journals reported that Captain Ericsson had abandoned the hot air engine in despair, everybody would have believed it; but when told that it is triumphant, that it answers every glowing anticipation of its author, we doubt, and doubt, and refuse to be convinced, till we can refuse no longer. It is too good to be true, is our instinctive reflection. The triumphs of genius and science are held to be impossible till they are achieved.
We recollect that Morse’s telegraph was long pronounced impossible, and too good to be true.

The mechanism by which Captain Ericsson controls the expansive power of hot, air is marked by all the originality and simplicity of genius. As is the case with most great inventions, the wonder is not that it should accomplish the end, but that it was not sooner hit upon. In studying the machine, each part is found so perfectly adapted to its purpose, discharging its function with such economy arid certainty, the principles are so clear and the arrangements so felicitous, that it seems rather a spontaneous creation, than the product of long years of laborious thought and gradual improvement.

The supply cylinder or great air pump, charging itself with air from the atmosphere, through its valves, as the descending stroke of its piston leaves a vacuum; the reservoir of compressed air kept full by the upward stroke of the same piston; the valve that opens and allows this compressed air to rush into the heater; the regenerator which takes the heat from the air that passes out, to restore it to that which goes in, thus using the same heat over and over again; the cut-off, which intervenes at just the right moment, closes the valve that admits the compressed air into the heater; the contrivances for confining the heat to its place, and enabling engineers and firemen to work conveniently anti in comfort; all these features are so beautiful, so free from complicated contrivances, and so admirable in every respect, that it is impossible for the mind to grasp them in all their relations without satisfaction and delight.

Here indeed is the production of masterly genius, to which science is ancillary and nature obedient. It has lately been said that for a general to think rapidly and wisely on the field of battle, to use every circumstance and anticipate every consequence, amid the rustle of bullets and the horrors of carnage, is a great intellectual demonstration, and it is true. But how much greater and nobler the intellectual action which contends with the elemental forces, and in conquering endows man with a new mechanical agent such as this! It is intenser, keener, more comprehensive, more sublime, more intrepid, prolonged through years and conferring a sweeter joy, better laurels, and a more immortal fame. It has another merit. It is a stepping to grander inventions hereafter. It is a new and permanent advance toward the entire dominion of man over nature.

To Captain Ericsson personally it can be a matter of very little consequence whether the incredulity of the world is prolonged a little further or not. He is sure that the true merits of his invention will presently receive a universal recognition. It will be admitted for all it is worth. Its benefits will be enjoyed, and his recompense of honor will not be withheld. A power which by its greater cheapness supplants steam, while it is free from all danger, and can be adapted to perform the simplest domestic and agricultural labor, is sure of a ready and grateful adoption. But we should like to see a little more cordiality toward it on the part of those most largely interested in navigation and commerce.

Hot air as a motor will produce a deep and far-reaching change in human affairs. It will enrich and emancipate the poor, without injuring any. The revolution will be peaceful and happy, and for that reason all the more profound and sure. But when it is fairly accomplished we shall not wonder at it. It will seem only natural. Man will use it as but a part of his birthright, and as the assurance of larger inventions and more beneficent science to come.