1911 50 hp. Fairbanks Morse Type RE

Located at the Mount Wilson Observatory

The Mount Wilson Observatory is located in the mountains above Pasadena, California at an elevation of just over one mile. It is the home of two large telescopes that were each the largest in the world at the time of installation and remains an active and modern scientific research site. In 1908 the 60 inch diameter mirror telescope was put in operation and the 100 inch instrument in 1917. The area was first used for astronomy in 1904.

In September of 1999 my brother Ken, Mike Jones and myself had the rare privilege of being able to refurbish a 1911 50 hp. Fairbanks Morse Type RE engine which was installed in the Autumn of 1912 as the third electric generating plant at the observatory. It is directly coupled to a generator capable of producing 40 KW of power at 125 Volts D.C. The engine is still located in its original concrete power house and has been protected from both the elements and vandalism all this time.  In February of 2000 it ran for the first time in 30 years.

We found that no basic mechanical work such as bearings, rings, valves, etc. needed to be done. The various sub-systems such as lubrication, fuel supply, ignition, cooling and starting did need servicing or modification however. We were extremely fortunate and even found the original spare set of igniters shipped from the factory with the engine.

Be sure to look at the next page to see some detailed views of interesting bits and pieces of this great original engine.  Check the home page for some other interesting projects at the Observatory site.

Click here to see a short video of this engine running in June of 2007 and posted on YouTube

There are larger pictures behind these thumbnails
This is the original power house with a 15 hp. Witte engine belted to a 7.5 KW AC-DC dynamo.  The fate of this engine is unknown. An early picture of the present power house with the type RE and also a single cylinder Fairbanks Morse 25 hp. engine the fate of which is unknown.
The engine and power house as it is today. The oil reservoir tank and the air intake system at top of engine.  The brass work is a set of 13 oilers and the fuel supply and return lines.
The fuel supply system.  Just below the horizontal brass pipe are the igniters. Ken adding oil to the reservoir.  His hand is on the pipe that feeds the oilers.  Inside that pipe is another pipe that returns the collected and filtered used oil.
Mike starting to make the brass look much better. The flywheel weighs just under one ton.  Also shown is the timing gear and a governor weight.  The hand lever is the spark advance and retard control.
There is a sheet metal "oven" around the exhaust manifold to trap warm air for the intake manifold.  The horizontal pipe is cooling water.  The vertical pipe on the extreme right is the compressed air for starting. Another view of the engine and generator.
The building that has protected this engine for the past 90 years.  Note the view of the engine through the door and the hefty exhaust stack. Patent dates from 1895 to 1909.
Less than 200 feet from the engine is a seismometer operated by Cal Tech.  This tracing shows the activity when the engine is started.   This tracing shows the quick loss of transmitted motion after engine shut down even though it "coasts" for close to two minutes.
The upper tracing is the yellow highlighted ten second interval shown in the third tracing below it expanded to full screen.  It shows an rpm of 288.      

Comments and questions can be sent to:

More pictures of this engine

Click here for a PDF file of a detailed narrative of the refurbishment of this engine.

Here is a page with links to large format high res images.


Updated 04/26/2008

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