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Allis-Chalmers Governor

Governor for hydraulic turbine engine, made by the Allis-Chalmers Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1905.
(Museum object #2008.64.1)

Everything about the Allis-Chalmers Company was big.

Milwaukee's Edward P. Allis Co., whose roots stretched back to 1847, was already the world's biggest steam engine manufacturer when it merged with the second, third and forth largest engine makers in 1901. The new firm, called the Allis-Chalmers Company, headquartered in Milwaukee, manufactured an impressive range of industrial and manufacturing equipment. And much of this equipment was huge. As early as the 1880s, E.P. Allis had built blast furnace blowers 40 feet high and steel rolling mill engines with flywheels weighing 53 tons! By 1910, Allis-Chalmers was making an impressive array of equipment for milling flour, crushing ore, pumping sewage and ventilating mines, but the heart of their business was generating power. The company eventually billed itself as the "Company of the Four Powers – Steam, Gas, Water, and Electricity."

How can a museum hoping to document such a company's oversized history cope with objects of this magnitude? One approach is to collect small components that can represent much larger systems.

This is the governor, or control mechanism, from a 1250 horsepower hydraulic turbine. It is a petite 58 inches high, 48 inches wide and weighs a mere 1600 pounds. It was manufactured in 1905 at Allis-Chalmers' factory in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which originally belonged to the Dickson Manufacturing Co. (the second largest engine builder involved in the 1901 merger). Allis-Chalmers closed the Scranton plant in 1911 in a round of consolidations.

This governor was the first model Allis-Chalmers built when it began manufacturing hydraulic turbines in 1905. In its simplest form, a hydraulic turbine generates power by capturing the force of falling water. Water is directed downward onto the blades of the turbine's runner, causing it to rotate. The runner spins a shaft which generates power either directly via gearing or indirectly by driving an electrical generator.

The role of a governor is to keep the shaft spinning at a consistent speed appropriate for the conditions at hand. Spinning too fast might damage the equipment; too slow would generate insufficient power. A governor mechanically responds to changes in the speed of the main turbine shaft, allowing more water into the turbine if it slows down, or reducing flow if it speeds up. The key to this device is the set of chromed flyballs visible above the bronze cylinder at the upper left. As these spin faster, centrifugal force pulls them apart, operating a linkage which narrows the gates admitting water to the turbine. As the speed slows, the flyballs draw closer together, mechanically widening the gates. The hand wheel on the right enables an operator to control the gates manually.

Allis-Chalmers sought the best available technology when it entered the hydro power field. In 1904, the company licensed the turbine designs of Escher, Wyss & Co., founded in Zurich, Switzerland in 1805. By the end of the century Escher, Wyss & Co. had become one of the most experienced and innovative hydraulic power companies in the world. In the 1880s, it had developed the predecessor of this governor, a design that one history of waterpower control calls "one of the first standardized so-called universal governors to achieve mass production." That design, whose principle is still in use today, employed a high-pressure oil system both to moderate the governor's effects (preventing a fluctuating fast-slow-fast-slow-fast-slow operating cycle) and to add a power assist in opening and closing the turbine's gates.

Allis-Chalmers' hydro power expertise grew with experience. The company went to work developing its own designs and was soon supplying custom built hydro power units to utilities across the country. In 1923, it completed work on the largest hydroelectric unit in the world, a 70,000 horsepower turbine installed at Niagara Falls. A decade later, the company got the contract to build five, even bigger 115,000 horsepower turbines to drive the generators at Hoover Dam.

The company was always on the lookout for new opportunities. One of them was farm machinery. Allis-Chalmers built its first tractor in 1914, and although the farm equipment division struggled early on, by the mid-1930s its Persian Orange, rubber tired tractors were a common site on American farms. The company participated in the Manhattan Project during World War II and entered the nuclear power field after the war.

A post-war diversification program brought Allis-Chalmers into even more industries and generated additional revenues, but did not necessarily improve its competitive position overall. The company competed in many manufacturing sectors, but dominated few of them (John Deere and International Harvester were bigger in farm equipment; GE and Westinghouse were bigger in power generation; Caterpillar in construction equipment; and so on). After several contentious takeover battles in the 1960s, the company prospered during the 1970s, reaching a peak employment of over 20,000 and generating $2 billion dollars in sales in 1980. But problems soon appeared, and when the company failed, it failed big.

The bottom fell out of the electrical equipment market in the late 1970s, followed by a prolonged downturn in American agriculture a few years later. The recession of the early 1980s also decimated the heavy equipment market, and a sharp rise in interest rates proved devastating for capital intensive companies like Allis-Chalmers. Between 1981 and 1984, the company lost almost $500 million. To compensate, it began selling off division after division, to no avail. The company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1987, and after an acrimonious fight over pension liabilities, closed its huge West Allis plant on January 29, 1989. The company limped along as a shadow of itself for another decade, operating primarily as an oil equipment servicing company based in Houston, Texas.

At its peak, Allis-Chalmers was one of Wisconsin's largest companies, whose scope and whose products were both immense. This relatively small, but well-crafted turbine governor demonstrates the quality of the company's engineering and its fabrication skills. You will have to imagine these traits on an enormous scale yourself.

[Sources: Fasol, Karl Heinz. "A Short History of Hydropower Control," IEEE Control Systems Magazine (August 2002) available online at; Wendel, C.H. The Allis Chalmers Story (Sarasota, FL: Crestline Publishing Co., 1988); Pioneer Power, a Story of the Growth and Development of Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company since 1847 (Milwaukee: Allis Chalmers, Tractor Division, 1942).]


Posted on October 09, 2008

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  • Business, Technology, & Labor
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