The Bourke Engine

Adapted  from 101 Words I Don't Use by Paul Niquette
Copyright © 1997 Sophisticated: The Magazine. All rights reserved.
Entry in The Asymmetric Engine, ISBN 1-58922-208-3

For more about engine technology, see 
"Efficiency Champion" in A Certain Bicyclist by Paul Niquette.

The unmuffled clatter of The Bourke Engine would demolish your hearing. Good thing I took Homer's advice about the cotton. I can feel the detonations against my chest. Smoke swirls around the test-stand and stings my nostrils.  A canister of gasoline dangles overhead like an oversized I/V bottle.
Reality is two. Two-point-zero, to be precise. When it comes to "specific horsepower," that's it. Two-point-zero is about the limit for any engine: Two-point-zero horsepower for every pound of fuel consumed in an hour. 

Doesn't matter about size. Big engines, little engines. That 18-wheel truck passing you on the expressway: two-point-zero. Your lawn mower: the same. Airplanes in the sky, ships at sea -- two horsepower for every pound-per-hour. Not much more than that, anyway. 

Specific horsepower has a limit: two-point-zero

Ed, the youngest member of the team, is well into his sixties. He taps the spark advance just so. The engine rattles its mounts, half a hundred horses inside, oil-soaked and stomping at the gate, shirking their bridles. I can feel their hot breath. So can Luke. His job is the cooling system, a maze of leaky hoses. Once ruddy and freckled, now beyond senior years, "Cool Hand Luke" toggles his petcock and grins at me. We already laughed about that. Rusty water dribbles onto the concrete floor.

Old Man Neilsen, the team leader, reclines in his director's chair in front of the dynamometer waiting for a signal from Ed. The fourth member of the team is Homer, a rough-hewn octogenarian with silver tufts for sideburns. He squats before the driveshaft, tachometer in hand.

Take your car. It has an engine rated for, say, a hundred horsepower -- but only when you really put your foot into it. Imagine all those restless steeds heaving and rearing in their harnesses, all compressed inside a metal box the size of -- well, the size of an automobile engine. You keep them reined in mostly. Around town you throttle back to 25 miles per hour, the effort of only about a dozen metallic nags. 

You have to feed each pair of horses a pound of fuel -- an armful of alfalfa -- six pounds total for a dozen horsepower. An hour later, they are ready to quit. To keep those 12 ponies pulling for another hour, you have to pump in six more pounds of fuel. That's the minimum wage of thermodynamics. 

By the way, a gallon of gasoline happens to weigh six pounds. So your engine guzzles a gallon of gasoline per hour at 25 miles per hour. You're getting about 25 miles per gallon. Not bad. If anybody's car gets better mileage than that, it must be smaller and lighter: For the same speed, fewer horses to feed. 

Taking unsteady aim with a screwdriver, Ed trims the butterfly valve. The change in mixture brings on a clamoring stampede, the steady pounding of mechanical hooves. Time for me to climb onto the footstool. The fuel level moves down the glass toward the first mark. I'm poised to punch my stopwatch.

This first experiment at partial throttle will take about a dozen minutes. Longer, we hope. The way I have it figured, 12 minutes to burn two quarts means a certifiable breakthrough -- an encyclopedic event!

Nobody knows how to build an engine with a specific horsepower more than two-point-zero. More than two-point-zero would give new meaning to motorized efficiency. 

Make that happen and you have beaten today's best engines with their extra valves and plugs and stratified charge. You have defeated Diesel and Otto and Wankel. Whatever you have there, patent the thing! Detroit is your oyster. And Tokyo and Munich. More than two-point-zero horsepower for every pound-per-hour of fuel consumed and you deserve the Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize. You will leave financial empires for your progeny.

The Bourke Engine operates at three-point-three.

Incessant vibrations tickle my ankles and knees. Within the engine, 50 horses are at full gallop. For several minutes I let my eyes take in the Bourke Engine and its dedicated research team.

The agreement calls for me to make a careful audit of Homer's tachometer readings along with the engine load, which is being controlled by Old Man Neilsen's dynamometer. Both men were born about the turn of the century. Same for Cool Hand Luke. The three of them have been working on the Bourke Engine for half their lives. Call that determination. 

The dynamometer is a steel bar clamped to a brake drum, water cooled. Handcrafted originally by Russell Bourke himself, the instrument was bolted to the floor alongside the test-stand. An industrial V-belt wrapped on pulleys delivers the horsepower from the engine's flywheel to the steaming drum on the dynamometer. 

Old Man Neilsen, his head tilted for bifocalling, controls the load with a crescent wrench. He squints at a spring-scale attached to the bar exactly 34 inches off-axis, a measurement I confirmed with a yardstick before the start of the experiment. Knowing that particular distance is crucial, since it determines the torque. 

The objective for Old Man Neilsen is to keep the force on the arm reading 30 pounds. That, together with Homer's 3,150 RPM, means 50.9 horsepower. I cannot help wondering how many hours of wrench-time this man has accumulated -- possibly years in that exact pose -- contemplating the tributes of a grateful nation and dreaming of those royalty checks, the monetary obligations of a grumpy industry.

Ed braces his knee against the test-stand and tweaks the mixture. His coveralls were once either blue or gray. Homer's tachometer, which looks much like an oversized pocketwatch, is pressed against the driveshaft. He is bowed over its face, sweat streaming from his own. The flywheel fans the smoky air inches beyond his knuckles.

Homer is wearing a lab coat. I wonder if that's for my benefit.

It was Homer who greeted me in Old Man Neilsen's driveway that Sunday morning in 1979. Remember 1979 and the embargo? The odd/even days? The "moral equivalent of war"? My consulting business was taken up with technical reviews of gas-saving gadgets and gizmos on behalf of investors being pursued by inventors. Due diligence, it's called. I found scams, mostly. And errors. I met plenty of dreamers.

Homer led me into what was once a garage. "Neighbors complain if we fire up the engine much before noon," said he. Homer gestured with his thumb. "Meet Ed."

"Hi, Ed." I took a quadrilled pad out of my briefcase and followed Homer along a row of machines: lathe, mill, precision grinder -- a toolmaker's dream shop.

"That old fogey is Cool Hand Luke over there with his water hoses. Come shake hands with this guy, Luke." A bald, bespectacled fellow greeted me with a smile." And here's the boss," continued Homer. "We call him Old Man Neilsen. Luke calls him something else."

"Only when I'm not around." Old Man Neilsen stood up from his director's chair, arms akimbo. He studied me warily through drugstore spectacles. A lifetime of calluses gripped my hand. The boss was ordinary in stature and paunch, unremarkable in every way -- except for his garments: golf cap worn backwards, dress shirt tucked into Bermuda shorts, dark socks and sandals. He exchanged glances with the others one by one.

Each nodded solemnly. I was OK.

Luke lifted a tarp. The Bourke Engine, too, was undistinguished -- from the outside. The machine quite plainly boasted four cylinders, horizontally opposed, the same size and form factor as a VW engine. Homer opened a notebook full of hand-ruled data sheets and a yellowing copy of the Bourke patent, which had expired a dozen years earlier. I cleared my throat.

"Mr. Neilsen, to what do you attribute the high efficiency?"

"Runs smooth," he shrugged. "Getting rid of vibration is the whole idea. That way you turn high RPMs, get more pick-up."

Homer explained that Bourke died in 1968, leaving the engine to his friend Neilsen, who promised to continue its development. He and his chums retired and moved with their wives to Nevada. The three of them all lived in the same neighborhood in North Las Vegas. They worked on the Bourke Engine during the week then ran horsepower experiments on Sundays.

"While our wives are in church," said Homer. "We needed a machinist that would work cheap. We found Ed here. This young fella was souping up drag boats on Lake Mead. Gave him a few beers and he rebuilt the combustion chambers."

"Ordinary connecting-rods are all wrong," Luke volunteered. He was the only member of the team who permitted his face to smile. "Rods flap back and forth, side-to-side." He pointed a greasy finger at Figure 1 in the patent. "The Scotch Yoke here gives you a nice even piston motion."

Homer raised his silvery eyebrows. "Sinusoidal," said he.

I put the notebook back on the bench. "You will excuse me for saying so, but whatever you do in the crankcase simply cannot have much effect on fuel economy."

Homer's jaw jutted. "You ain't seen the data!"

Old Man Neilsen, held up his hand. "I don't mind telling you, nobody was more surprised about getting three-point-three than Russell Bourke himself."

"But Mr. Neilsen," I said, "there are a lot of dreamers out there. Imagine how many of them show up on the doorstep of GM and Ford -- especially right now, with everyone talking about gas mileage. My recommendation of your technology is predicated on confirming the measurements."

"Data speaks for itself," said Homer.

Whether he knew it or not, Homer had proclaimed the most fundamental principle in science.

The fuel level is only an inch above the mark, two quarts down. Eleven minutes and running. Far as I can tell, everything is in order. Heat and haze, oily stench, bellowing chorus of combustion, screaming V-belt.  Solemn, intense men, hoping.  If I live to be a hundred, I'll never forget the earnest expectations of this moment.

Coming up on 12 minutes. Anything beyond that time will confirm the Bourke Engine's place in history: Three-point-three horsepower-per-goddam-pound-per-hour!

Now I see it. Something is wrong: The pulleys!

Reality. There's nothing quite like it. For some of us, to catch a glimpse of reality is fulfillment. To measure, to analyze a real thing, to understand it -- why, that's all we ask of life. The more we encounter reality, though, the more barriers we bang up against. Makes you wonder sometimes: What's so all-fired great about reality, anyway! 

Experimental error can produce an amazement if not a miracle. You can stumble into a place beyond reality -- and more: You have the data to prove it. The more subtle the fallacy, the more confounding the breakthrough, the more vulgar the error.

"Shut it down!" I hollered.

My first reaction was to terminate the experiment, as if there were some kind of an emergency taking place instead of merely a reality attack.

Ed stopped his tweaking of the carburetor and cupped his hand behind his ear.

No doubt whatsoever: Experimental error has been caught. Reality prevails. I wanted to climb down from the footstool and explain. Homer freed one hand from his tachometer and waved insistently. He pointed at the fuel bottle. I glanced up and saw that the level had passed the bottom mark. I felt my thumb click the button on the stopwatch.

Ed closed the throttle. Old Man Neilsen released the brake. Suddenly silence. I removed the cotton from my ears.

Homer was first to speak. "What did you get?"

"Twelve minutes. However -- "

"Twelve minutes and what, for crying out loud!"

"A little over 24 seconds, but I gotta say something, here."

Luke beamed. "Best we ever done." He clapped Old Man Neilsen on the shoulder.

Ed tossed his screwdriver in the air and gave out a cheer. "Slipper-yoke! That new shape slams them fuel charges real good."

Old Man Neilsen, face crimson, opened the refrigerator in the corner of the shop. He offered me the first beer.

Homer cocked his head toward me. "What you got to say now?"

I shook my head. "It's the pulleys."

Luke and Ed linked arms and danced a jig, kicking water on Homer's lab coat. Old Man Neilsen lifted his beer to salute the Bourke Engine. Homer popped a can-top. "Figured you'd see them pulleys."

"You know then!" I exclaimed, utterly astonished.

"Sure," said Homer, after taking a long swig. "Only makes our data better."

"How do you figure that?"

"The friction -- that's what you're worried about -- friction from the belt scrubbing those pulleys. Belt drag. Hell, that only means a little horsepower lost on the way from the engine to the dynamometer. We figured that out more'n twenty years ago, didn't we, Luke?"

Luke put down his beer. He was not smiling.

"No," I said. "That's not the problem. Look here, the pulley on the brake is bigger than the one on the engine."

"Horsepower don't care about pulleys," Homer snorted, holding up his tachometer. "Only RPMs."

Old Man Neilsen strolled to the workbench and flipped through the pages of a dilapidated shop manual. He handed it to me. A smudged page told how to calculate horsepower.

As every freshman physics student knows, to calculate horsepower, you take torque in foot-pounds and multiply it by rotational speed in revolutions per minute and divide the result by 5,262. 

But these measurements on the Bourke engine were flawed. Experimental error. 

A moment of pondering, and I might have kept the matter to myself.  But no.  Dreams be damned.  My ego and I, flushed with victory over error, indulged a primitive reflex: to disabuse these guys of their misconception.

Luke had backed up against the far wall, face ashen. He caught my eye and shook his head slowly. I watched him cross his lips with his index finger.

"The RPMs," I blurted, "have to be measured on the same shaft as the torque." I reached for the yardstick. Then, having finally caught Luke's drift, I drew back.  Cool Hand Luke nodded his appreciation, but it was too late.

"Pulleys don't mean nothin'!" protested Homer. "Luke, tell 'im. This son of a bitch got no business coming in here mouthin' off about pulleys."

Luke made no reply.

Suddenly I didn't want to be right. It was for a time like this that the word 'shit' was invented. I studied the tops of my shoes.

Luke mopped his brow with a shop rag. His eyes were glistening. For a long minute, the only sound was the clicking of the Bourke Engine cooling down.

It was Ed who broke the silence this time. "He's right." Taking the yardstick in hand, Ed held it up to the pulley on the engine and marked the measurement with his thumb. He stepped over to the dynamometer. "See? This one is three times bigger."

Old Man Neilsen, face drawn, leafed absently through the notebook. "I was afraid this would happen."

"So we're not exactly getting three-point-three," Homer said. "Can't we just use a correction factor?"

"I was afraid this would happen," repeated Old Man Neilsen. "The horsepower isn't what we thought."

"Our data is off by one-third is all!" Homer protested. "Two-point-two, then. That's what we're gettin'. Nobody else ever did any better than two-point-zero!"

Ed checked the pulleys again. "The engine," he said, "is delivering only one-third as much as -- "

"Which means exactly what!"

"Homer, it means we're gettin' less than twenty horsepower."

Old Man Neilsen shook his head. "All those damned years! Why didn't we ever think about the pulleys?"

Cool Hand Luke folded his arms. I watched a grim smile tremble across his face. He knew about the pulleys -- for decades.   For hundreds of Sundays, Cool Hand Luke showed up to monitor his gauges and toggle his petcock, to nourish old men's dreams. Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his reality for his friends.

Charity work, Luke might have told himself. Not much good at golf anyway.

Homer took a shuddering breath. "Ed, that damned thing's running at only one-point-one!"

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Specific Fuel Consumption: The expression "specific horspower" (hp/lb/hr) has been adopted for the general audience in place of "specific fuel consumption" (lb/hp-hr), which is the more common technical phraseology, inasmuch as "specific fuel consumption" has been appropriated in recent times to characterize fuel economy of motor vehicles (variously gm/mi, gal/ton-mile, kg/tonne-kilometre). Typical specific fuel consumptions run about 0.5 lb/hp-hr for gasoline engines and 0.4 lb/hp-hr for Diesels.

Russell Bourke and the 400-Cubic-Inch Engine: The patents ran out in 1957 (photograph courtesy of Roger Richard).