Saturday, November 21, 2015

50 HP Fairbanks Morse, II

This 50HP Fairbanks-Morse engine, built in 1911 and installed at historic Mt. Wilson Observatory in 1912, was for many years the only source of power at the Observatory campus. It's "a twin cylinder gasoline fueled engine, directly coupled to a generator capable of producing 40 kilowatts of power at 125 volts DC." There's more about the engine here and here.

We got our tour courtesy of Ken (L) and Larry (R) Evans, who've been keeping the engine running for more than 15 years.

Ready, set...let's see what this baby can do.


A brief view from the other side.

Not everyone gets excited about it. But a lot of us do.

The Fairbanks Morse engine is in a restricted area of the Observatory campus, but the Observatory itself is open to the public every day, 10am-5pm, as long as the roads are open. The Cosmic Cafe is open on weekends from April through November. Guided tours of the Observatory are available on weekends, or by reservation. You can even reserve one of the telescopes for a star gazing party! Or a photo shoot! Or an anniversary party! Or a wedding! I'm pretty sure there's not a more unique location, at least not within driving distance of my house.

11/23/15 update from Ken Evans (left, above): 
"If that lizard got onto the running flywheel, it would have to go 60 miles per hour to stay in one spot. Just a little trivia I once figured out.

"I am draining the water out of it tomorrow, Tuesday Nov 24 for the winter. Freezing nights are predicted for several days and we don't want to damage anything on such a treasure.  So the show season is over. Of course it can be looked at, just not run."

11/26/15 Here's another update from Ken Evans, and let's all thank him and Larry; they've been so helpful and informative and that's what makes this fun.

"Electricity Now and Then -  The AC electricity for Mt Wilson is supplied by SoCal Edison. In the Power House where the Fairbanks-Morse engine is located the DC is provided by solid state rectifiers and distributed from there. Originally DC was provided by various sizes of internal combustion engines. The F-M being the last. It was really a battery charger. There was a room with glass jar wet batteries and were charged during the day. At night the batteries were used which provided non polluting quiet power that astronomers liked. When AC power came to the Observatory in 1917, an AC motor driving a DC generator was installed and the F-M was a back-up. We are not sure if the AC-DC motor set was used to charge the batteries or ran all the time.

Fuel Oil -  A fuel oil called California Distillate was used as the source of heat. It is lighter than kerosene maybe like paint thinner. A large storage tank was set on a high spot and distributed to Day Tanks at various facilities by gravity. The Fairbanks-Morse engine was run on it. However, we use gasoline now for the demonstration runs. They had to start it on gasoline and then switch over to the distillate. It had to be delivered up the Toll Road but no reference has been found about delivery.

A lot of propane is now used at Mt. Wilson for heating and cooking.

Engine Running -  The engine had to be run during winter because it was the main power source. So freezing was not an issue. The combustion air intake can come from three sources. First is outside air, then room air and last, a shroud around the exhaust manifold would provide warmed air. We only use outside air. We only run the engine for demonstration during the summer. We have another volunteer that has figured out the generating system and we have generated electricity to run a light bulb and a motor for compressed air for starting. We have a modern air compressor for starting now. One cylinder of the two is converted to run on air to start the second cylinder and then converted to produce power from both.

Water -  Water for Mt. Wilson is obtained from wells near by. But because of the drought, they have gone dry and water is trucked in." 


Pasadena Adjacent said...

If I should ever marry, it will be in the Mount Wilson auditorium

altadenahiker said...

Do they still use it for anything at anytime, or is it more like a classic car? Purdy, in any case.

Lowell said...

That's simply amazing. It runs like a charm. I'd guess those two gentleman can immediately determine if there is the slightest problem with it. I would love to visit and take a tour of the place! It would be especially exciting to see the sky through such a telescope!

Thanks for sharing this!

Petrea Burchard said...

PA, I'm sure you can. I want to get married in the 100-inch dome, but since I'm already married maybe I'll have a party there.

Hiker, the Observatory still runs important scientific experiments. But alas, the engine is more like a classic car. Purdy.

I've never been a gear-head, Lowell, but this machine is so gorgeous, and I loved the rhythms of it. The Evans brothers know everything about it. While we watched Ken demonstrate, Larry gave us loads of interesting history and information.

William Kendall said...

Quite a machine, Petrea!

Petrea Burchard said...

That it is, William!

Petrea Burchard said...

I've added a brief update at the end of the post: some notes of interest from Ken Evans.

Bellis said...

That lizard's ahead of the curve: he's solar-powered.

I could watch well-oiled engines like that for hours, and this one's a purring beauty. You were so lucky to have been allowed into that concrete building. Is this gem now really just for show? As the historic telescopes are still running on DC power, the AC mains electricity must be transformed somewhere on site, did you find out where? More questions: Was the petrol (gas) initially carried up in a tanker along that tough Mt. Wilson toll road? That must have been quite a drive. Has the engine always been drained in winter, or did it run throughout the snow and ice when it was the only power source?

Petrea Burchard said...

I was privileged to see it in action, Bellis.

As I understand it, the Evans brothers run the machine just a couple of times a year to keep it in working order. I don't know about AC and DC, although I'm sure Larry explained it. We got a lot of information that day! But although this engine still generates a lot of power, the campus is run on electricity from a different source now. I don't remember where.

I'm sure the gas was initially hauled up the Mt. Wilson road, and probably still is. There are tanks throughout the campus but I don't know what kind of gas is in them. Water is hauled in, too.

The engine must have run throughout the winter, because astronomy was done year-round and the telescopes needed power. You can find old pictures of astronomers working in winter clothes and gloves. Even now the telescope buildings are not heated and it gets very cold, especially when you're sitting up all night to watch the stars.

altadenahiker said...

Kudos to Ken and Larry for keeping this piece of history alive.

Petrea Burchard said...

I agree. Their expertise is invaluable. And they are volunteers. Amazing and wonderful.

TheChieftess said...

The HP Fairbanks is so much more interesting than the current means of providing energy!!!

Petrea Burchard said...

I have a feeling that it gets more miles per gallon, too.

José Mendonça said...

Once again those fantastic details caught my attention. Wonderful shots!

LOLfromPasa said...

Fantastic presentation, Petrea. Wait until I show John. He will love it too! Mt Wilson is a wondrous place and that observatory is something else. I am so glad that you have had the opportunity to spend so much time there and put together a great collection of blog posts. Brings back great memories. Many thanks!!

Petrea Burchard said...

Thanks, JM!

LOL, please do share it with John. Maybe next time you come to Pasadena you can head up the mountain for a visit!

Petrea Burchard said...

11/26 I've added another update from Ken at the end of the post (thank you, Ken!). I think he answers your questions here, Bellis.

Bellis said...

Thanks, Ken! I was hoping he'd answer my questions.

Lowell said...

Thank you, Petrea, for your kind comment on Ocala DP. It was much appreciated. Wishing you the best of everything!

magiceye said...

Beautiful perspectives!

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you, Lowell!

And thank you, magiceye. It was good to see you at Lowell's place yesterday and check out your wonderful blog again.