May 25, 2021

Nathanael Greene Herreshoff: Steam Engineer, The Corliss Years

Guest post written by Jim Giblin

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

NGH: Steam Engineer, The Corliss Years

by Jim Giblin

I believe N. G. throughout his life remained at heart a steam engineer.

I believe his happiest moments were when he was designing steam engines with their complicated mathematics.”

– L. Francis Herreshoff 1944. [1]

The MIT Museum Exhibit “Lighter, Stronger, Faster; The Herreshoff Legacy” credits Nathanael with more than fifty separate steam engine designs.[2]


In 1848, the same year Nathanael was born, George Corliss (age 31) and E.J. Nightingale formed the Corliss Nightingale Company. The first steam engine incorporating George Corliss revolutionary steam inlet and exhaust valve control linkage and its associated valve design was produced the same year. This development dramatically improved the efficiency of an engine and set the stage for a new era of steam engines. The corresponding patent was issued in 1849.[5] In 1856 George Corliss bought out his partners and the company became the Corliss Steam Engine Company. By the time Nathanael joined the company in 1869 there were over 1,200 Corliss engines totaling 118,500 HP in service.[6] The Corliss plant covered five acres on Charles Street and at times employed nearly 1,000 people.[5] The Corliss Company’s principal product was the horizontal stationary steam engine used in the manufacturing industries. Corliss did build a few large water pumping engines and a small number of his engines were used in marine applications. The Corliss engines were particularly valued – both here and in Europe – by the textile and steel rolling mills, not just for their fuel economy and quality of construction but also for their ability to automatically maintain a constant speed under varying loads. These characteristics improved both the quality and quantity of products of both these industries and others. The dramatically improved efficiency imparted by the Corliss patents transformed manufacturing as it permitted steam power to become both more economical and more reliable than waterpower. This in turn fostered industrial development in urban centers which possessed superior access to both transportation and labor.[7]

sepia tone photo of young Nat Herreshoff, wearing a suit and bowtie, nicely combed hair and a full beard.

A Draughtsman’s Position

Upon his completion of studies at MIT in 1869 Nathanael became a member of a select group of individuals who had formally studied mechanical engineering and the thermodynamics of steam. The MIT graduation records indicate that between 1868 and 1870 only five of the 29 MIT graduates were mechanical engineers.[8] At the time most designers of mechanical equipment were, like George Corliss and Edwin Reynolds, intelligent, very inventive, mechanically inclined individuals whose designs were empirically developed based upon the knowledge and skills acquired by observation and in the shops. In his Annual Report of 1895, the President of MIT had this to say regarding early mechanical engineers: “But few, even of intelligent and cultivated people in 1865 knew what a mechanical engineer was, why he should be called so, or what problems he would be called upon to attack. It was not until young men began to go out from this and other schools trained as mechanical engineers that manufactures, bridge builders, railroad corporations, and persons in a hundred industries who were charged with the generation of power found out that they wanted just such men.”[9]

[1] Richard S. West Jr. The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter. (New York: Coward McCann, Inc. 1937) Pgs. 315-18.

In 1869 Nathanael Herreshoff secured a position as a draughtsman for the Corliss Steam Engine Company in Providence Rhode Island. [3] The Herreshoff family often visited Providence and was acquainted with Mr. and Mrs. John Houghton. Mr. Houghton was a foreman at Corliss and may have brought Nathanael to the attention of George Corliss. Nathanael also boarded at the Houghton’s for several years during his time at the Corliss works. This was a premiere position for a person of Nathanael’s interests and talents as Corliss was at that time, without question, the foremost manufacturer of steam engines in the United States.[4]

[1] Richard S. West Jr. The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter. (New York: Coward McCann, Inc. 1937) Pgs. 315-18.

For a person of Nathanael’s education, a draughtsman’s position was what in the present day would be termed a designer. Nathanael’s first job was tracing some Corliss drawings for William Harris, a former Corliss superintendent, who in 1864 had opened his own company to produce engines under license from George Corliss. However, Nathanael’s capabilities were quickly recognized: very soon after starting he was asked by Mr. Edwin Reynolds to assist him indicating a mill engine. In reply to a questionnaire from the Henry Ford Museum in 1931 Nathanael recalled; “Very soon after my connection with the Corliss works, Mr. Reynolds took me out to a mill to assist in applying the steam engine indicators to determine the power used. This work I took quite a liking to and soon attended to all that work and became known about the shops as the Engine doctor. It was a fine schooling for me in Steam Engineering matters.” [10]

[1] Richard S. West Jr. The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter. (New York: Coward McCann, Inc. 1937) Pgs. 315-18.