Today, a Scottish minister, a nonelectric fan, and
jet planes. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The other day I visited a
distinguished collector of turn-of-the-century
technology. I saw all the extraordinary elegance of
that age -- music boxes, fine lamps, automatic
One item was a non-electric fan. The Lake Breeze
Motor Company made it in 1919. It looks a lot like
a regular electric fan. But under the blades rides
a small kerosene lamp. There are no wires. It's
This Model B Lake Breeze Fan wafted air past me as
I scanned the manufacturer's catalog. It cost
$22.50 in 1919. Today that'd be like two to four
hundred dollars. It wasn't cheap, but listen to
some of the printed testimonials:
"Everybody seems to think it is a wonder, as it
"Please return our fan as soon as possible. We are
about to suffocate without this wonderful little
"I have a little girl sick in bed with the fever
and she is certainly enjoying the fan."
In the shaft that holds the fan is a
hidden Stirling hot air engine. The catalog makes no
secret of how it works. It offers rich cutaway
drawings with details of the mechanisms.
The idea traces to Robert Stirling, a 26-year-old
Scottish Presbyterian minister. He had a radical
idea. In 1816 he took out a patent on a hot-air
engine. Up to then, the steam engine was the only
practical heat engine that'd ever been built.
Stirling alternately heated and cooled the air in a
cylinder. It had to be large and slow-moving to be
efficient. It took a big capital investment. Yet he
made it work. A 45-HP working model drove equipment
in a Dundee foundry for three years.
The Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson
invented his own version of the engine in the
mid-1800s. From then on, the idea kept evolving and
mutating. People finally simplified it and sped it
up by burning fuel in the air as it passes between
sets of turbine blades. The modern fan jet is the
great- grandchild of the Rev. Mr. Stirling's odd
The Lake Breeze Fan was only a way station in that
evolution. As we put in power lines, electric fans
quickly replaced it. And, anyway, it had a serious
shortcoming. That kerosene lamp dumps heat into an
already hot room. The temperature rises even as the
dandy little fan dries your sweat.
So nine years later, in 1928, Germany built the
first gas turbine. By 1939 they'd flown the first
turbojet airplane. And Stirling's invention did at
last become a breeze of change that blew away old
engines and changed the way we travel the Earth.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds