History Lesson: Aubrey Eneas and the Birth of Solar Steam Power

Larger ImageIn the winter of 1901, tourists enjoying the luxurious weather and swankyresort hotels of southern California were intrigued by a handbill widely distributed throughout Pasadena, Altadena and nearby towns.  “Visit the Ostrich Farm—100 Gigantic Birds,” the bill proclaimed in bold typefaceabove a black and white photo of the long-necked, prehistoric-lookingcreatures.  The farm, owned and operated by transplanted Britishentrepreneur Edwin Cawston, was the only one of its kind in the UnitedStates and a well-established attraction in the early decades of the 20th century.  Cawston had started out, in the mid 1880s, with 50 ostrichesimported from Africa.  By the second decade of the new century, morethan 1000 birds roamed the grounds.  Visitors, most of whom had neverseen a live ostrich, paid to gawk at and feed the awkward birds, whilefarm hands entertained the crowds by riding the exotic creaturesbare-back .  The Cawston farm was also well known in the fashionindustry for its prize-wining ostrich feathers, then in high demand forwomen’s hats and feather boas.  Plucked once every nine months and dyed a rainbow of alluring colors, Cawston’s feathers achieved internationalfame when they won first prize at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900.

Beyond the farm’s usual attractions, however, the 1901 ad featured an extraenticement—a giant, concentrating solar motor, “the only machine of itskind in the world in daily operation,” according to the handbill, ondisplay for no extra charge. Like the Parisians who’d marveled at solarpioneer Augustin Mouchot’s industrious sun machine at the Paris World’sFair in 1878, the crowds that flocked to Cawston’s ostrich farm wereastonished by the contraption on display—an 8300-pound monstrosity that, similar to Mouchot’s motor, featured a conical reflector consisting ofmore than 1700 mirrors focusing sunlight onto a long cylindrical boilerat its center.  Even Mouchot, though, would have marveled at the newmotor’s towering size.  The mirrored cone had more than 700 feet ofsurface and measured 35 feet across at its wide end, easily doubling the reflecting capacity of Mouchot’s largest machine.  The apparatus washitched to a track running the length of a vertical, lightweight steeltower that allowed a clock mechanism to keep the mirror angled towardthe sun throughout the day.  What was most astonishing for inhabitantsof arid southern California, though, was that the motor, running onnothing more than sunbeams, pumped more than 1400 gallons of water perminute, transforming the normally dry, dusty farm into a lush gardenoverflowing with colorful, fragrant flowers.  Drawing newspaperreporters from across the country, the device achieved national fame,including being featured on collectable cards inside packs of Wills’sCigarettes.

The celebrated solar machine was the work of Aubrey Eneas, likeCawston a native Englishman who’d relocated to the United States to seek his fortune.  An inventor and engineer based in Boston, Eneas drewinspiration from the work of fellow immigrant John Ericsson, the famousSwiss-born engineer whose design for the ironclad steam-poweredbattleship The Monitor was widely credited for swinging thetide of the American Civil War to the Union side.  Like Mouchot,Ericsson believed that the industrial revolution would soon founder forlack of coal, and also like his French contemporary saw solar power asan intriguing, more sustainable alternative.  Although Ericsson’sexperiments with solar motors powered by both steam and hot air neveradvanced beyond the prototype stage, his efforts sparked theimaginations of other American inventors, including Aubrey Eneas, whofounded the Solar Motor Company of Boston in 1892.  From his base in the coal-rich east, Eneas saw opportunity in the arid deserts of theAmerican southwest, where a growing need for steam-powered irrigationand lack of easily accessible (and therefore cheap) coal presented aseemingly ripe opportunity for solar power.  After experimenting briefly with an Ericsson-like device using a parabolic, trough-shaped reflector that had the detriment of heating only one side of the boiler, Eneasadopted Mouchot’s conical reflector design to heat the boiler moreevenly and efficiently, producing a greater volume of steam.  Bychopping off the bottom end of the cone and making the side moreupright, Eneas increased the amount of sunlight heating the boiler,raising an average temperature of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit—more thanenough, by Eneas’ calculations, to produce steam at industrial levels.

Although the machine Eneas put on display at Cawston’s farm wassuccessful, it was only the first step in an ambitious campaign toentrench solar energy as a leading source of power in the Americansouthwest.  Building on his triumph at the farm, in 1903 Eneas relocated the Solar Motor Company from Boston to Los Angeles and beganaggressively marketing his machine throughout the region.  Before long,Eneas made his first sale, to Arizona rancher Alexander Chandler.  Astartlingly handsome man with an impressive, Franz-Joseph stylesideburns and moustache, Chandler had made his living as a veterinarian, with a thriving practice in Detroit.  But from a young age, growing upin Quebec, Canada, Chandler had dreamed of cattle ranching in the mythic American West.  When, in 1887, a post for a veterinary surgeon openedin the Arizona territory, Chandler jumped at the opportunity.  Pursuinghis dream, Chandler soon began buying hundreds of acres of land toestablish the Chandler Ranch south of Phoenix.  Recognizing thatirrigating his land would cost a fortune in imported coal to pump waterup from the low-lying Salt River, Chandler was open to alternatives. Eneas’s celebrated solar engine seemed the perfect fit.  Although theupfront cost of $2160 was steep at a time when the average yearly family income was around $700, Chandler saw the benefits of a device that,once up and running, would soon pay for itself by obviating the need for expensive coal.  As soon as it was installed, in the scorching summerof 1903, the solar engine began to pay off, pumping thousands of gallons onto Chandler’s sun-baked land.

After centuries of unrealized dreams and false starts, it seemed,solar energy’s day had finally come.  Until, a week later, when it camecrashing down—literally.  The great bulk and spacious reflective surface area that made Eneas’s machine so powerful was also its greatestweakness.  The massive but delicate device was vulnerable to high windsand other inclement weather, and during a windstorm the part holding the boiler erect gave way, sending the heavy tube crashing down onto themirrored cone.  Smashed into thousands of shiny, jagged pieces, thereflector was damaged beyond repair.  Although Chandler was undauntedand had the machine rebuilt, the incident spelled the beginning of theend for Eneas’s solar dreams.  The few other machines he sold metsimilar fates—one destroyed by a “dust devil” (a mini-tornado common inArizona), the other by a hailstorm.  His reputation ruined by theweather-related disasters and unable to secure more funding from hisEast Coast backers, Eneas left the solar power business and dropped outof the history of solar energy.

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