Penn State students' replica engine selected for display at Henry Ford Museum

By Cathy Benscoter
June 24, 2013

DEARBORN, Mich. -- A replica of Henry Ford’s first combustion engine, built by Penn State Beaver engineering students, went on display June 17 as the highlight of an exhibit at The Henry Ford Museum’s Greenfield Village celebrating Ford’s 150th birthday.

“Anything that does stuff that people can get up close to is great for us,” said Tom Varitek, senior manager of program operations at the Dearborn, Mich., museum.

“We’re benefitting greatly from having the engine on display. All our guests this summer will as well.”

The engine was built as a class project for Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics taught by James Hendrickson (a 1982 engineering alumnus), instructor in engineering. While researching the project, students found several sources that said Ford destroyed the original.

“The test of a good project to me is: Does it have historical significance? 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.”

-- James Hendrickson, instructor in engineering at Penn State Beaver

In point of fact, museum curators have the original safely in storage. They also have a nearly identical replica of it on display in Greenfield Village.

So why would The Henry Ford want to borrow Penn State Beaver’s model?

"The replica they have doesn’t work," Hendrickson said. "Ours does."

But if Hendrickson has his way, that could soon change.

The Project

Hendrickson is famous for the projects he gives his students. Over the years they’ve created a 3-D model of a mill in Ohio, worked on the restoration and redesign of the waterwheel at Gaston’s Mill at Beaver Creek 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: “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.

The engine project occurred to Hendrickson after he read the owner’s manual to his grandfather’s 1908 Model T.

“I started to think about it. This might be a neat project. We could build a car here,” he said. “So I started puttering around a little bit, and I discovered this engine which nobody seems to know a whole lot about.”

It seemed like a great idea for a project, Hendrickson said, and 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.

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, Pa.

“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, Pa. “And 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.”

Penn State Beaver students operate Kitchen Sink Engine at Maker Faire Detroit

From left, Penn State Beaver students Valerie Fudurich, Nicole Bing, Allie Stewart, Christina Corraini, Wesley Mummert and Dalton Petrillo operate their replica of Henry Ford's Kitchen Sink Engine at Maker Faire Detroit in 2012.

IMAGE: Cathy Benscoter

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 from 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.”

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

Detroit Road Trip, Part 1

Penn State Beaver students prepare to take the Kitchen Sink Engine to Detroit

Penn State Beaver students Brodie Schultz, Russel Diehl, Matthew Haig, Jeremy Canonge and Donald Bradfield prepare to take the Kitchen Sink Engine to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

IMAGE: Cathy Benscoter

Hendrickson wanted to claim a tiny slice of that history for his students.

Once their engine was working, he contacted Ford Motor Co. to invite Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. to campus for a demonstration.

“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,” Hendrickson said.

When that effort faltered, Beaver alumnus John Grace (a 1990 engineering alumnus), managing engineer of the paint facility at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant, was called in to help.

“I liked Penn State Beaver’s engine because it’s using a preeminent historical story and object and reinvestigating that. 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.”

-- Christian Overland, executive vice president of The Henry Ford Museum

Though Grace has little access to the executive suite, he knows many people at the museum thanks to his interest in antique cars and bicycles. He put the professor in touch with Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford.

“When we found out that the students had a reproduction that actually works, we were very interested,” said Johnson, who invited Hendrickson and his students to display their replica at the 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 Museum, was particularly impressed.

“I liked Penn State Beaver’s engine because it’s using a preeminent historical story and object and reinvestigating that,” Overland said. “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.

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 original engine in all its glory. At the students’ request, she carefully set the engine’s wheel in place and gently 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 don’t start them,” she said.

Going into the storage area of the museum was a rare opportunity, said Hendrickson. “We actually got to see it. These students will never forget that.”

Dalton Petrillo, a mechanical engineering major who traveled to Detroit from his home in Cheyenne, Wyo., found out how big an honor it was when he told one of the museum workers about it. “He was jealous. He said they never show it to anyone.”

That only added to his pride in their work. “When you make a project, most of the time you’re going to be proud of it, no matter if it’s crappy or not,” said Petrillo, leader of the technical research and 3-D modeling team. “But when Mr. Hendrickson told us that he had contacted Ford Motor Company about it, at that moment I was really, really proud of the project.”

Eiben also was pleased. “Taking the engine out and talking to people about it is great,” he said. “They get really excited about it because you’re excited. You can see it in their faces. And you think, ‘We did that for a dollar.’

“At the start, I promised the team that this was going to be our best project,” Eiben said. “I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it would go this far.”

Detroit Road Trip, Part 2

Clara Deck of the Henry Ford Museum talks with Penn State Beaver students about their Henry Ford engine

Clara Deck, senior conservator of historical resources for the Henry Ford Museum talks with Penn State Beaver students about their Henry Ford Kitchen Sink Engine.

IMAGE: Cathy Benscoter

After the campus’ 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 the fall Hendrickson entered into discussions with Varitek, who was heading up Greenfield Village’s plans for Ford’s 150th birthday celebration. At the time, he and his team were working on a hands-on, interactive display at the Village.

The exhibit, “Henry Ford and His Machines,” is housed in a reproduction of Miller School, which Ford attended as a youth. The school is next to Ford’s rebuilt childhood home and stands near other buildings important to Ford and his work, including the shed where he created the Kitchen Sink Engine and the Quadricycle.

The exhibit follows a 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 is excited about having 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."

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.

“It’s better to start part of the way through than to never have worked on it at all,” said Jeremy Canonge, a mechanical engineering major from Freedom, Pa.

The students were instrumental in training museum staff how to operate the engine.

“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.”

Staff members and trusted volunteers will be running the engine outside Miller School several times a day from June 17 through Aug. 18, and if it breaks down while it’s there, Hendrickson isn’t worried.

“I’m sure that if there’s a problem with it, I’ll never know about it. They’ll just fix it and get it running again,” he said. “These people fix Model Ts and keep the Quadricycle running. There’s 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.”

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Last Updated June 25, 2013