Saturday, February 25, 2012


Some friends of ours here in New Zealand took us to a farm fair, the A&P fair (Agriculture and Pastoral). I had a little conversation with a man who had an old hit and miss engine that was made in Australia in the early 20th century. It was very similar to the one that I have at home, except his was completely restored. And of course, the one we have is not made in Australia, but in Wisconsin.
Nevertheless, I was able to ask him many questions about the engines. They were designed to run on kerosene, since in those days, that was the cheaper fuel. He said that they would use petrol to start it, since that made it easier starting, then ran in on kerosene. These days, since petrol is cheaper, that is what he uses. I told him I couldn’t get petrol at home and wondered if gasoline would work.
Sometime this year, I hope to work on ours, which is now sitting in our barn back home. I have had the piston soaking in solvent for about four years, trying to get the piston rings unstuck. Since being home four years ago, I have not been back long enough to be able to work on it. That is soon going to change.
The following essay is something I wrote some years ago about our old hit and miss engine

We called the old gasoline powered machine a PUM fui-fui because that is the sound that it made when it ran.  The old engine had a single piston about eight inches in diameter and two huge flywheels about four feet across, one on either side of the engine, connected by a gigantic crankshaft.  The piston did not go up and down as one would normally expect in a gasoline motor, but it ran horizontally – back and forth.  On the top of the engine, there was a squared reservoir that looked as if it must be some kind of smoke stack, but really, it was for the water that cooled the piston and cylinder. The engine had one wire that led to one ancient looking spark plug, and a pulley on the side from which a belt of about six inches wide could power an equally ancient threshing machine or other implement.
I do not know where Dad got this wonderful engine.  I seem to remember when we got it, but I was just a small boy.  Dad mounted a buzz saw to it and we used it for sawing firewood.  The massive iron motor was bolted to squared timbers, which sat on iron wheels.  The whole machine was perhaps twelve feet long.  Every fall, it was the annual project to get the PUM fui-fui started and saw the firewood for the winter.
It was far from a given fact that we would get it started.  Everything had to be just right and there seemed to be as much art and feel to it as pure mechanical theory.  The valve that fed the gasoline into the carburetor had to be opened just enough to feed an adequate amount of gas, but not too much or the engine would flood out.  I called it a carburetor, but the PUM fui-fui did not really have an actual carburetor.  It was more like an ancestor or a precursor to the carburetors of today’s engines. It was a proto-carburetor.  The old PUM fui-fui instead had a set of iron pipes that took the place of the carburetor.  In a way that I never completely understood, the configuration of the pipes mixed air in with the gasoline and fed the gas and air mixture into the cylinder so that the antiquated spark plug hopefully would ignite the mixture to drive the engine.
I remember that the electrical system seemed to cause trouble quite often.  It seemed not to be always faithful in sending a hot spark to the spark plug.  The timing of the spark was also a little touchy.  This was controlled by moving a lever and listening to how the engine sounded.  Of course, this adjustment could only be done once the engine was running.  You first would have to take your best guess at where the lever should be placed, and hope that it was near enough to the right spot to fire things up.
When the PUM fui-fui finally did get fired up it was a circus of movement.  The two huge flywheels would rotate vigorously as if they hoped that they could go somewhere.  The bottom end of the piston (which as I said was really lying horizontally), was visible so that you could see it turning the crankshaft and the two large iron flywheels.
The PUM fui-fui had a little rotating and gyrating mechanism toward the front of the engine, (why I call it the front, I do not know – there really was no front or back).  This little device was called the governor, because it governed the maximum speed of the engine.  The twirling top of the governor had two small iron spheres that hung down from it, and as the engine ran faster and faster, these two little orbs would be thrown out further from the center by centrifugal force.  When thrown out to a preset distance from the center, the iron balls would hold the exhaust port open.  When this exhaust port stayed open, the gas-air mixture would not explode inside the cylinder. If it did, the force of the explosion was lost since much of the explosion was vented through the opening.  This had the effect of slowing the engine down.  It was at these missed strokes when the engine gave the “fui” sound.  There must have been one “firing” stroke to every two that did not.  Our old engine fired on the “PUM” and missed on the “fui, fui.
The belt that ran off from the side of our PUM fui-fui powered our buzz saw.  As I mentioned, the old engine had one purpose on our farm – to saw our firewood for the year.  The work involved with getting the engine started seemed like victory enough, but that labor was only the preparation for the real work ahead.  The evidence of the real work ahead lay obvious there in our yard.  It had as its appearance a small mountain of dried logs and sticks, ranging in size from almost a foot in diameter for furnace wood, to limbs as big around as walking cane, for kitchen wood.
Dad was the sawyer.  We boys would untangle the logs and sticks that laid in the yard like giant pick-up sticks and placed them, one by one, on the carriage that held them to be sawed – one end of the log on the carriage and the other end held by one of us boys.  Dad fed the wood into the saw and one of us boys, who was not holding the other end of the log, would grasp the sawed-off piece and throw it into the firewood pile.
We each had our task as we sawed the firewood.  Hours would pass. “PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fui.”  The saw also gave off its regular and methodically ringing sound as it sawed through the firewood.  The log pile ever so slowly became smaller and smaller, and the sawed firewood pile slowly grew larger and larger.  With each cut, the saw would send out its vibrating ring.  Sawdust blew around in the air and arms and backs got weary.  A tedious task. “PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fui, ring, ring.”  We picked up the logs and put them on the carriage, holding the other end and slowly advancing as the log became shorter and shorter with each cut.  We wrapped our hands around the stick being sawed and watched as the teeth of the saw were fed into the wood.  When the log was severed, we rotated our bodies like a baseball player batting a ball and threw the stick into the pile. “PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fu, ring, ring.”
I remembered seeing a movie as a boy (maybe it was Ben Hur) where they had a Roman galleon with many rows of slaves sitting at the oars.  They faced a man who was beating a drum meant to set the pace of the rowers.  “Bum – bum – bum.”  The rowers did not have to think, in fact, it was preferable to the Romans that they did not.  All that the slaves had to do was row in cadence to the drum.  “Bum – bum – bum.”
“PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fui - PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fui.”  Our taskmaster set the pace.  We methodically went through the motions of our task.  Hold the log, step forward, hold the log, step forward.  Grasp the stick, rotate and throw, grasp the stick, rotate and throw. “PUM, fui-fui, PUM, fui-fui.”
But sometimes something happened.  Sometimes the PUM fui-fui decided to give a boy a break.  It would stop its rhythmic cadence.  I do not remember what would occur exactly, but I think the coil would stop working properly or something like that.  I did not dare voice my happiness for these minor tragedies, but I felt like a slave of the Romans who was for a little while set free from his bonds.  When the old engine stopped, I lifted my head and was gone.  Dad and the older boys would start looking at some wires or something and try to make some adjustment here and there. But I was free.  The air was clean and the taskmaster was silent.  All that stood between me and complete freedom was the field that was between me and the woods.  As one recently unshackled and as quickly as I could, I ran toward the trees.

Soon enough they would get the PUM fui-fui started again.  I would hear it from the woods.  As much as I loved my freedom, I was not irresponsible.  When I heard the drummer, I returned to take my place at the oar.  In the end, I knew as well as anyone that the wood had to be sawed.
I never ever really could understand why the PUM fui-fui would sometimes quit working.  The reasons varied.  Dad and my older brothers would talk about carburetion and loss of compression.  I think it was usually another reason.  A boy can only stand the toil so long.  The taskmaster did what no taskmaster should do – he looked into the eyes of the slave.  He saw in the little windows of this young soul the need for a few moments of freedom.  The PUM fui-fui decided to give the boy some well-deserved time to breathe the freedom that boys live for.  In that cold iron of the old gasoline engine perhaps there was also a small beating heart – an understanding of a boy’s need to be free.

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