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Update: Engine on display through Oct. 31. Museum wants campus to build it an engine of its own.

Ford engine project on display at Detroit museum

By Cathy Benscoter
Penn State Beaver Marketing and Web Specialist

In spring 2012, when Penn State Beaver engineering students built a working replica of Henry Ford’s first combustion engine, their professor, Jim Hendrickson, had one goal: run it for William Clay Ford Jr., the chairman of the Ford Motor Company.

“I invited Mr. Ford to come to campus to see it,” Hendrickson said. “Our understanding was that Henry Ford’s original was thrown out somewhere along the way. I thought his great-grandson would like to see one running.”

It took over a year, but that goal has finally become reality, just not in the way – or the place – that Hendrickson envisioned.

The Kitchen Sink

Hendrickson, instructor in engineering at Penn State Beaver, is famous for the projects he gives his students.

Over the years they’ve created a 3D model of a mill in Ohio, worked on the restoration and redesign of the waterwheel at Gaston’s Mill at Beaver Creek State Park near in Columbiana County, Ohio, and reverse engineered the Bessemer oil field pumping engine at Moraine State Park in Butler County, Pa.

“The test of a good project to me is: Does it have historical significance?” Hendrickson said. “One of the things I try to do is make students appreciate how great something actually was in that time period because it’s hard to do now.”

His second test is, “Have any college students ever accomplished such a thing before? And if the answer is ‘no,’ it moves up on the list,” he said.

“And the last one is, ‘Could I actually do that?’ If I’m not completely certain I could, then it’s a good student project,” he said with a small smile.

In 2012 for his Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics course, he decided to go big.

While reading the owner’s manual to his grandfather’s 1908 Model T, Hendrickson got an idea. “I started to think about it. This might be a neat project. We could build a car here,” he said.

“But I thought that might be a little much, so I started puttering around a little bit, and I discovered this engine which nobody seems to know a whole lot about.”

Ford’s first combustion engine, known as the Kitchen Sink Engine, was never installed in a vehicle. Instead, it served as a proof of concept for his first car, the 1896 Quadricycle.

“The story goes that on Christmas Eve 1893 Henry Ford had his wife put down the turkey and come to the kitchen sink to help him start this thing,” Hendrickson said.

The engine was plugged into a light socket, and Ford and his wife regulated the fuel intake by hand. They got it started, and Ford went on to automotive history.

Given the historical significance of that first Ford engine, recreating one seemed like a great idea for a project, Hendrickson said. He handed it over to his class of 11 sophomores with ample funding. “Being a generous sort, I gave them a budget of $1,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

The class was thrilled.

“When Mr. Hendrickson gave us the Henry Ford project, I looked at what was required and I thought, ‘Oh, we are all so dead,’ ” said Valerie Fudurich, a nuclear engineering major from Monaca.

“We got this massive project. It was just horrendous, so many things to do,” said project manager Michael Eiben, an architectural engineering major from Wexford. “But little by little we got pieces and pieces together, and it just came together. Everyone worked so well together. It brought out our efforts as the engineering team.”

The lack of funding meant that the students had to fabricate the parts themselves or get them donated. Mostly, they made the parts in the garage of team member Allie Stewart, whose father owns a machine shop.

“We hand-machined parts and put them together to create a running engine,” said Stewart, an aerospace engineering major from Georgetown, Pa.

“We built a working engine out of scratch,” said Brennen Koji, petroleum engineering major from McMurray, Pa. “We harnessed explosions and turned them into mechanical energy.”

The $1 budget went to a cup of coffee, Koji said. “We shared it to stay awake while we were working on the engine.”

Once the engine was working, Hendrickson contacted Ford Motor Co. to invite William Clay Ford Jr. to campus for a demonstration.

When that effort faltered (“Apparently, there are several layers of people you have to go through to talk with Mr. Ford,” Hendrickson said wryly), Beaver alumnus John Grace, managing engineer of the paint facility at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant, was called in to help.

Though Grace, a collector of antique cars and bicycles, has little access to the executive suite, he knows many people at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. He put the professor in touch with Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Ford.

Despite having the original engine in storage in the museum and a nearly identical replica of it on display in Greenfield Village, Johnson was immediately interested, and Hendrickson knew why:

“The replica they have doesn’t work,” Hendrickson said, his lips quirked and his eyes gleaming. “Ours does.”

Detroit Road Trip, Part 1

Johnson invited Hendrickson and his students to display their replica at 2012 Maker Faire Detroit, an invention fair hosted annually by the museum. The students were given space in the museum’s tent alongside reproductions of the Quadricycle, an 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, an 1885 Daimler Reitwagen, and Ford’s 1901 “Sweepstakes” race car.

“Everyone loved seeing the engine run and hearing the students talk about it,” Johnson said.

That included the judges of the fair, who awarded the students three blue ribbons for their project. Christian Overland, executive vice president of The Henry Ford, was particularly impressed.

“I like Penn State Beaver’s engine because it’s using a preeminent historical story and object and reinvestigating that,” Overland said after presenting the first of the ribbons to the students. “It’s obviously a piece that works. More importantly, when I talked to the students about it, I could see there’s a real team here.”

Clara Deck, the museum’s senior conservator of historical resources, choked up when she saw the reproduction running. “We have the original, but I’ve never seen it run,” she said, swiping at a tear. “We’ve thought about getting our replica started. Every year we want to make it run and get it out here for people to see, but we’ve never had anyone who had the time to tinker with it.”

Deck arranged for the students to visit a storage room in the museum. There, among long rows of shelves filled with history, she showed them the uncrated engine in all its glory. At the students’ request, she carefully set the engine’s wheel in place and turned it.

Ford’s original was smaller than the students’ replica, but it was obvious they had taken care to reproduce his work. It was also obvious they were itching to do more than look at it.

“We’ll get it started for you,” Koji said, grinning up at Deck from where he squatted next to the engine.

Deck laughed and declined.

“We preserve the artifacts. We never start them.”

Detroit Road Trip, Part 2

After the campus’s successful appearance at Maker Faire, it was clear that Hendrickson and museum officials were both interested in forging a lasting relationship.

Hendrickson offered to lend them the engine. “I thought it would be great for them to put it on display,” he said.

In fall 2012 Hendrickson entered into discussions with Tom Varitek, senior manager of program operations, who was heading up the museum’s plans for Ford’s 150th birthday celebration in summer 2013. At the time, he and his team were working on a hands-on, interactive display for Greenfield Village.

The exhibit, “Henry Ford and His Machines,” would follow the young Ford at three crucial stages in his life: at 12, when he took apart his father’s watch; at 19, when he became interested in steam engines; and at 30, when he began investigating gasoline engines.

“We thought there’s no better way to illustrate that than to show the Kitchen Sink Engine,” Varitek said. “We wondered, ‘Can we get our model working for the anniversary?’ When we saw (the Penn State) engine at Maker Faire, the question became, ‘What if we get that engine and show it?’ ”

Penn State Beaver’s engine was a perfect match for the exhibit, Varitek said.

“One of the things we like to stress about Henry Ford, and history in general, is its relevance points. The fact that Jim and his class decided to do this smacked of relevancy. Here’s how history is being used today in the classroom. That, to me, worked better than trying to restore our own model.”

Varitek was excited to have the engine in the exhibit. “The ability to actually show it working is a perfect diagram for young people to be able to see how the engine in their car works, with the piston going in and out and the wheel turning. It’s like being able to get inside their car’s engine,” Varitek said.

In early May, five students accompanied Hendrickson to the museum to deliver the engine to Varitek. They weren’t involved in the actual build but had been analyzing it for several months. In addition, they’d been running it at campus events and professional engineering group meetings since the fall.

“All of us are pretty knowledgeable on how the engine runs,” said Matthew Haig, a mechanical engineering major from Stephens City, Va. “We’re not trying to take credit for building it. We’re just teaching the people there how to run it.”

Since June, staff members and trusted volunteers have been running the engine several times a day at Greenfield Village’s Bagely Avenue Workshop, a recreation of the shed where Ford built the engine and the Quadricycle.

“People gather around when they hear it,” said museum presenter Mary Finnan. “I’ve really had fun running it and telling people about it and the students who made it.”

Then came the night of July 30, the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford’s birth. William Clay Ford Jr. hosted a dinner at the museum for members of the Detroit Economic Club. Guests took rides in Model Ts and strolled the streets of the village.

And at the heart of it all was Penn State Beaver’s Kitchen Sink Engine.

“We ran it almost continuously all night during the party,” said Micki Kitchen, manager of community life and industry programs. “We’d turn it on for about 15 seconds then turn it off again. Then someone else would come up and talk to us, and we’d turn it on again. Everybody got such a kick out of it. It was really fun to watch their reactions.”

“Everybody,” of course, included William Clay Ford Jr. himself.

The little engine that could

Hendrickson is still a bit awed by the attention the project has gotten from museum officials.

“My biggest surprise is how it’s been adopted by them,” he said. “I didn’t really expect it was going to be something that would end up on display at The Henry Ford. That part of it kind of took on a life of its own.”

The engine was originally scheduled to return home in early September, but Kitchen asked to extend the run until the end of October.

“We wanted to keep it on display through the end of our school field trip season,” she said. “It’s a wonderful curriculum fit for the sciences.”

With the engine’s undeniable success at the museum under his belt, Hendrickson has set his sights higher. “My goal is to get their replica and bring it back to get it started,” he said.

Though it sounds like a pipe dream, it might be possible, Varitek said. “Having Jim and his students work on it seems like something that would be really good,” he said.

But Varitek and Kitchen actually have another idea.

“The replica we have is kind of junky. It’s been on display a long time and might be hard to fix up,” Kitchen said. “We’re more interested in having Jim’s students build a new one for us than in trying to fix the old one.”

Hendrickson is open to that idea as well. “That could end up being the ultimate project, a collaboration between our students and Ford. It would be a real-life situation where the students are fabricating parts and building a product to the client’s specifications,” he said.

Hendrickson pondered the idea for a moment, a hint of a smile beginning to show.

“I’ll have to give that some thought,” he said. “It could be a very good project indeed.”

no one better to take care of it.”

Hendrickson is still a bit awed by the attention the project has gotten from museum officials. “My biggest surprise is how it’s been adopted by them,” he said. “I didn’t really expect it was going to be something that would end up on display at The Henry Ford. That part of it kind of took on a life of its own.”

Road Trip to Beaver?

Now that the engine is on display, Hendrickson has set his sights higher.

“My goal is to get their replica and bring it back to get it started,” he said.

Though it sounds like a pipe dream, it might be possible, and Varitek is pushing to make it happen. “Having Jim and his students work on it seems like something that would be really good,” he said.

To help move things along, Hendrickson is willing to offer a trade. “If it makes our case easier, we could just leave ours up there while we’re working on their replica,” he said. “I think if they see that our engine draws a big crowd at the Miller School every time they run it this summer, that’s going to help the cause. Plus, that’s what Henry Ford wanted. He didn’t want static displays. He wanted things to run. That’s why the village is there.”

Varitek believes the museum’s replica was originally created in the 1930s at the direction of Henry Ford to take to world’s fairs. It’s not known when it last worked, but Varitek said it’s been part of the static display in Ford’s 58 Bagley Ave. shed for at least 15 years.

The problem is that “sometimes the reproductions get so old that they become artifacts themselves,” he said. In deciding whether it can be loaned out to be repaired, the museum must look into its history and how it is being used. “We believe it was built to be in working order. If that turns out to be the case, then it’s likely we’ll decide it’s appropriate for it to be used that way again.”

Once the museum gives the go-ahead, the University will have to assess the risks as well, and both parties will have to come to an agreement on the particulars of the loan.

“I’m sure it will come with stipulations,” Hendrickson said. “I’d have to have pretty heavy-handed involvement with it. We’ll have to find someplace secure to lock it up.”

Hendrickson said he’s likely to hand-pick some students to work with him on it as an independent study. “The museum people love the notion of student involvement, but I also know they’re not going to take any risk of destroying that thing.”

Varitek and Hendrickson are both hoping the Ford’s replica can be in Penn State Beaver’s hands by mid-September when Hendrickson returns to Dearborn to retrieve Beaver’s engine.

“It depends on how big a priority I put on the research,” Varitek said. “It’s the main thing I’ll be pushing for this summer.”


Jeremy Canonge, Russel Diehl and Brodie Schultz teach Henry Ford Museum engineer Tim Brewer how to operate the kitchen sink engine. 

Jeremy Canonge, Russel Diehl and Brodie Schultz teach Henry Ford Museum engineer Tim Brewer how to operate the kitchen sink engine.

See the engine in action

The engine will run several times a day from June 17 through Oct. 31 at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. That date was extended from the original Aug. 18.

Find information and directions to the museum at thehenryford.org.