The Industrial Revolution was not all about giant coal-fired steam engines and huge mills. By the late 19th century, thousands of little engines fuelled by gas were at work too, powering machinery in all sorts of small businesses.
The success of the gas engine, used everywhere from ginger beer factories to gold mines, led directly to the modern car engine, which still relies on many of the same ideas.
One of their most important manufacturers was Crossley Brothers of Manchester. By 1889, Crossley had sold 30,000 gas engines and they could be found across the world, but how did this company become 'world famous for gas engines'?
Who were the Crossley Brothers?
Frank and William Crossley were born in Ireland and served engineering apprenticeships in Newcastle Upon Tyne. In 1866, Frank became a partner in the Manchester company John M Dunlop, which manufactured machinery for waterproofed fabric. With some help from his family, Frank bought the firm in 1867 and was joined by William.
Within a few years the firm was renamed Crossley Brothers, but business was hard at first and the company struggled. The brothers did much of the actual work themselves to save money, with Frank focussing on engineering and William on business matters.
Their fortunes began to change in 1869 when they bought the rights to manufacture a revolutionary new type of small engine developed by German engineer Nicholas Otto. The Otto Atmospheric Gas Engine was the making of Crossley Brothers. Frank improved the design and by 1876 the firm had sold 1,400 of the little engines.
The following year, Crossley switched production to Nicholas Otto's newly invented four-stroke gas engine. Otto's four-stroke engines were more efficient than earlier types of gas engines. They could be made larger and more powerful, and were so much quieter that they were nicknamed 'Silent Otto' engines.
Otto's four-stroke engine was an idea that changed the world. The same concept is still used today in millions of petrol and diesel engines, but Crossley were one of the first companies to make them and spread them around the world.
One secret of the phenomenal success of the firm was the 'conscience' that the brothers invested in it. They never willingly sent out an inferior article.
'The life of Francis William Crossley', J. Rendel Harris (1900)
Both Crossley brothers were active Christians, involved in many charitable good works, and took their moral outlook into their business. There was a chapel in their new factory in Openshaw, opened in 1880, where a service was held each day before work.
Unsatisfactory work was unacceptable to Frank and the firm became known for reliability and sound workmanship. The brothers were both teetotal, but Frank became particularly troubled by the morality of selling engines to breweries; the money he made from this source was donated to charity.
Is it right to sell engines to brewers? In my mind I draw a line between selling a brewer a loaf, or a coat, and selling him an article which he wants for his morals-destroying trade.
Frank Crossley (c.1890s)
In the 1890s, Crossley also started producing oil engines, powered by paraffin, diesel or petrol. In the 20th century, Crossley branched out into making cars, buses, lorries and power plants for railway locomotives and ships. Although diesel engine production gradually became more important, Crossley's fortunes were founded on the gas engine, and they remained part of the Crossley product line until the firm's demise in the 1960s.
What is a gas engine?
Developed in the mid-19th century, a gas engine is a type of engine powered by burning gas. The first notably successful gas engine was designed by German engineer Nicholas Otto in the 1860s.
Otto's Atmospheric Gas Engine, the basis of Crossley's first engines, worked by feeding a mix of gas and air into a vertical cylinder, then setting it alight. The exploding gas forced a piston to move upwards, leaving a partial vacuum in the cylinder behind it. Gravity and atmospheric pressure pulled the piston back down and the whole cycle repeated. The up and down movement of the piston turned a shaft that drove other machinery.
Otto's early Atmospheric Engines were small, simple and convenient, but they were also noisy, inefficient and not very powerful. Otto went back to the drawing board and by 1876 had developed a greatly improved design, the Otto Silent Gas Engine, the revolutionary four-stroke cycle of operation of which is still used in millions of engines today.
Why were gas engines popular?
We think of the 19th century as being an era of steam power, but by 1896 Crossley had sold over 20,000 gas engines of various types and sizes to customers across the world. Gas engines had many advantages over steam engines, meaning that Crossley found a ready market.
Gas engines were far more convenient than steam power. To start a steam engine, you had to wait for the fire to get going, the water to heat up, and for the boiler to reach operating pressure. Once it was running, a steam engine required constant attention and topping up with coal and water to keep it running safely and steadily. A gas engine could be started up in a few minutes and left to run with only occasional attention. There was little smoke and no dirty ash or coal dust to clean up.
All one has to do is to turn a gas-cock, light the gas, give the fly wheel a start off the centre, and away goes the concern. No boiler, no firewood, no water, no steam, just a match and a jet of gas.
The Evening Journal (15 March 1872)
Gas engines were also safer. Steam boilers could explode if worn out or badly operated. No less than 595 boiler explosions were recorded in Britain between 1854 and 1870, causing 903 deaths. Having no boiler, the gas engine was far less likely to explode than a steam engine.
An eight-horse 'Silent,' imported recently to the order of the proprietors of the Register is now daily at work driving… printing and folding machines. So far as we are able to judge, its superiority over the steam-engine is very great.
Evening Journal, Adelaide (20 March 1879)
Finally, Crossley gas engines were very well suited to all sorts of different uses in different places. They were economical to run, easy to install, reliable and simple. They could be operated and maintained by people with limited training. They were compact, meaning they could fit in even small workshops and businesses. However, with engines ranging in power from as little as '5-manpower' up to several hundred horsepower, whatever the customer wanted to do, there was a Crossley gas engine with the power to do it.
'Free power from waste'
Gas lighting was common in towns in Victorian Britain and Crossley's early engines ran on mains supplies of town gas. However, there was no gas supply in rural areas and remote locations, so Crossley and other manufacturers sold gas production plants to allow people to make their own gas. These devices, such as the Dowson Gas Producer, heated coal or coke (a smokeless coal-based fuel) to generate a supply of 'producer gas' that could fuel the engine.
Early in the 20th century, Crossley began helping their customers turn waste materials into gas too. With a Crossley Gas Suction Plant, engine owners could make gas from sawdust, wood chippings, olive refuse, rice husks or coconut shells, giving them free power from waste materials. A 100-horsepower Crossley could run for an hour on 200 kilograms of rice husks.
What could you do with a Crossley Gas Engine?
Just about any sort of machinery could be driven by a Crossley gas engine. They were ideal for powering machine tools in workshops and small factories. One of the museum's Crossleys was used in a bakery, probably for sifting flour and mixing dough, which was seen as more hygienic than people working the bread mix with their hands. Many publishers used gas engines to power their printing presses, and they were also used to power equipment at mines, thresh corn, drive sawmills, pump water, and even run the equipment used to put the bubbles in fizzy water.
The 'Otto and Crossley' Silent Gas Engine… Specially adapted for working Hoists, Lifts, Printing, Sewing, Shoe-making, Sawing, Turning, Pumping and Aeriated Water Machinery, &c
Crossley Brothers advert (1878)
Electricity generation was another common use. Electricity supplies were patchy before the widespread development of grid systems from the 1930s. Many buildings—offices, factories, lighthouses, cinemas, grand houses and even small towns generated their own electricity for lighting using Crossley engines attached to dynamos. The John Rylands Library in Manchester, for instance, generated its own electricity from three 25-horsepower Crossley Gas engines.
Use of the engines was also remarkably widespread geographically. By the end of the 19th century, you could find Crossley gas engines printing newspapers in Australia, working wood in New Zealand, mixing bread in Ireland, at copper mines in Mexico, processing tea in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), and pressing wool in South Africa. But just how did one Manchester company end up supplying engines to so much of the world?
How did Crossley Brothers become 'world famous for gas engines'?
One reason for Crossley's success was that their engines could be kept running far from factory support, without sophisticated tools or extensive training. They were simple to operate and repair, and Crossley offered a mail service for spare parts. The engines could also run off many different types of gas depending on what was available. However, the reasons for their success were not all technical.
It is difficult to go in any part of the globe without coming across the well known Crossley engine...
Adelaide Chronicle (19 September 1908)
The growth of the British Empire in the 19th century provided British manufacturing firms like Crossley with easy access to markets across the globe. Not only did the development of ports and shipping routes help British firms to export their products easily, but customers in British colonies preferred to purchase machinery made in Britain.
Powering mine and farm equipment, cotton gins and sawmills, Crossley's Otto gas engines helped colonists to efficiently exploit the natural resources of the lands under British control. At the same time, they helped to power advanced technologies that were sometimes used to justify imperialism as a way of bringing 'civilisation' to less developed countries.
The other key to Crossley's success was how they built a worldwide sales network to sell and support the machines. By the end of the 19th century, Crossley agents could be found in nearly 30 countries. The company's representatives, part salesmen and part engineers, travelled the world in search of business opportunities and supported customers.
Mr. GRINTON, an engineer from Messrs. Crossley's manufactory, who, during his stay in Sydney, will superintend the erection of Gas Engines… and guarantee their perfect working.
Sydney Morning Herald (31 October 1878)
One of the farthest ranging of Crossley's representatives was James Grinton. Born in Manchester in 1854, Grinton travelled for Crossley Brothers around Australia and New Zealand in the 1870s and 1880s. He assisted local agents selling and installing engines, helped customers and fixed problems. One of his highest profile cases was correcting the misfiring Crossley engine that powered the electric lights in New Zealand's Parliament in 1883.
Mr James Grinton, the authorised agent of Messrs Crossley Bros., of Manchester, who supplied the gas engine by means of which the dynamo for lighting the Parliamentary Buildings with electricity is driven, has adopted a very simple means for preventing the explosions which have made the neighbourhood hideous ever since it was first set in motion.
New Zealand Mail (4 August 1883)
Grinton was clearly successful in helping to establish Crossley's business 'down under'. By 1908, there were about 500 Crossley gas engines in Australia, a few of which can still be seen to this day. As for James Grinton himself, he started his own business repairing Otto gas engines, married a lady from Dunedin in New Zealand, and later settled in New South Wales. They had five children, including a son named 'Otto', just like the engines Grinton sold for Crossley.
Crossley Gas Engines at the Science and Industry Museum
Please note: A number of the below engines are in the Power Hall, which is currently closed for restoration. The Power Hall is due to reopen in 2025.
Crossley Brothers built their success on gas engines, but the company quickly diversified. In the 20th century, Crossley began producing motor cars and established Crossley Motors Ltd in 1910, which became a major manufacturer of buses.
Diesel engines gradually became more important products than gas engines, and Crossley diesels powered everything from ships and trains to BBC radio transmitters and irrigation schemes. Despite prospering for several decades, the company declined after the Second World War. After several changes of ownership, the remnants of Crossley became part of Rolls-Royce, who eventually closed the remains of the business in 2009.
Today little remains of Crossley's original gas engine factory in Openshaw. One or two buildings remain, but the site is mostly occupied by a college and storage units. Several Crossley engines, gas and oil fuelled, are preserved at the Science and Industry Museum. Most of these engines are in the Power Hall, which is currently undergoing a multi-million-pound regeneration project, which will see many engines restored to running order. In the meantime, you can see our largest Crossley gas engine on display outside the museum entrance.
Suggestions for further reading
- Alan Townsin, Chris Heaps and Michael Eyre, Crossley (Manchester: Crecy Publishing. 2002)
- Science Museum Group Crossley Archives
- DW Edgington, Old Stationary Engines (Princes Risborough: Shire. 2004)