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Stirling Engines: History 1816-1937

"...These imperfections have been in great measure removed by time and especially by the genius of the distinguished Bessemer. If Bessemer iron or steel had been known thirty five or forty years ago there is scarce a doubt that the air engine would have been a great success... It remains for some skilled and ambitious mechanist in a future age to repeat it under favourable circumstances and with complete success..."
              Rev'd Dr. Robert Stirling, 1876
              from "Stirling Engines" by G. Walker

       The Rev'd Robert Stirling applied for the first of his patents for this engine and the 'Economiser' in 1816, a few months after being appointed as a minister in the Church of Scotland at age 25. Others such as Sir. George Caley had devised air engines previous to this time (c. 1807) and other devices called air engines were known as early as 1699. The 'Economiser', or regenerator, has come to be recognized as a most important portion of the patent of 1816. These innovations were even more remarkable in light of the fact that they preceeded the birth of thermodynamics and the writing of M. Sadi Carnot by some 40 years!
       Some historians have indicated that the reason for Rev'd Stirling's efforts at such a device were driven by his concern for the working people of his parishes as steam engines were being used extensively in that area and time period. Due to the lack of strength in the materials available to construct boilers ('Bessemer Iron', or Steel, was not yet available), they would frequently explode with devastating results on the people working nearby. The effects of high pressure steam on the human body are quite awful as anyone who has experienced a steam burn in the kitchen can attest.
       So Rev'd Stirling invented a safer (and more efficient) replacement for the steam engine, in order to save lives and improve the conditions of his parish life. Stirling's engine would not explode because the pressures were not elevated to that level... The machine simply stopped if the heater section failed.
       The best recorded implementation of these efforts was at the Dundee Foundry Company where Robert's brother, James Stirling, was employed. James was a very good engineer and a driving force in the implementation and perfection of the Stirling invention. A very large double-acting-piston machine with not one but two heater/displacer sections was built at the foundry under his direction (and we presume design). This engine powered the foundry for some years before material failures at inopportune times caused it to be replaced by a steam engine.
       With Bessimer's discovery of a process to mass produce quality steel, steam engines became more powerful and much safer to operate, and so the Stirling engine nearly faded into obscurity.


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