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The History of the Ajax Iron Works

Jul 09, 2009 | Posted in Essays, Technology

The History of the Ajax Iron Works
By David Goodwill

The Ajax Iron works was founded in 1877 in Corry, Pennsylvania. Originally the firm was a partnership under the name of Harmon, Gibbs and Company. The founders were C.G. Harmon, F.L. Bliss, George H. Gibbs and C.H. Bagley. In 1892, the company was incorporated as the Ajax Iron Works. The Ajax name was chosen to denote the power of the product they were building. The original building was constructed on a site purchased from the Downer estate at the intersection of Center Street and the railroad tracks. Ajax eventually occupied the entire site of the former Downer Works, the world’s first commercial oil refinery. The company was originally formed to manufacture steam drilling engines. Ajax soon earned the reputation of building the finest engines available and was known for years as “the Tiffany of machine builders”.

During the company’s early years, one of the founders, F.L. Bliss, invented and patented a steam engine reversing mechanism. This mechanism, known as the “rigid reverse”, enabled the operator to control the engine from the derrick. This proved to be an extremely popular feature and was immediately copied by many other steam engine builders at the time. This infringement, lead to a bitter legal battle, which ultimately ended up in the Supreme Court, where the patent rights were fully sustained. This was a big day for the new company. The day that the ruling was handed down, the partners chartered a special train and gave all of their employees an excursion to Niagara Falls for a day.

Although the company originally manufactured steam engines, in 1895 Ajax built its first gas engine. These engines were reportedly built with the same care and skill as the steam drilling engines. The engines were used both in the oil fields and by industry as prime movers. By 1905 Ajax was building a line of tandem gas engines which received favorable reviews in publications of the time. In fact, in November 1905, Ajax delivered a 60 HP tandem gas engine to the then-new Raymond Manufacturing Company also located in Corry.

The company continued to grow and by 1907, the entire floor space of its various buildings, including foundry, blacksmith shop and storage room was 65,000 square feet. Also included was a new 22,000 square foot machine and erecting shop. The shop was equipped with the most modern equipment available at the time. Electric drive
was used throughout the new shop. Power was supplied by Allis- Chalmers generators driven by 125 HP Ajax engines. Lighting for the entire plant was also supplied by these same generators.

In 1920, Ajax introduced a line of twin cylinder steam drilling engines. These engines proved to be so popular that the company’s production capacity was soon exceeded and all gas engine manufacture was discontinued. During World War II, Ajax designed and built large marine steam engines. On September 23, 1944 Ajax was awarded the Maritime “M” Pennant for its production of engines for the Victory ships.
After the war, Ajax returned to the manufacture of gas engines when they purchased a new design from the Superior Engine Division located in Springfield, Ohio. The company had been out of the gas engine business for over 25 years, so had fallen well behind the competition in engine design. The purchase of the Superior design provided a quick and practical solution. The first engine of the new design was successfully tested on October 30, 1946. At the time the company also continued to build its line of heavy duty drilling engines. The steam engines were eventually phased out.

In 1958, Ajax introduced a line of compressors directly attached to, and sharing a common crankshaft with the gas engine. This unique concept provided for greater efficiency and reduced maintenance These integral single and two-stage engine compressors were and are used for natural gas gathering and transmission. The line included engine-compressors in sizes from 30 to 360 horsepower.

Ajax Iron Works was purchased by Cooper-Bessemer in 1963 but continued operations in Corry. While still in Corry, engine compressors up to 4 cylinders and 800 horsepower had been developed and built. In November 1982, Ajax closed its doors. There were a few restarts in the next couple of years but all operations were eventually moved to Springfield, Ohio. In 2001, Cooper Cameron discontinued operations in Springfield. Today, Ajax engines and compressors are being produced by the Ajax Products Group division of the Cameron Corporation headquartered in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ajax is the oldest continuously produced engine line in the United States.

July, 2009

This essay was originally published in "Smoke and Fumes" the newsletter of the Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Inc., July, 2009 Edition. Reprinted by permission of the author.