What will $1 get you these days?

The night of July 30, the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford’s birth, a dinner was held at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. At the heart of the celebration was Penn State Beaver's Kitchen Sink Engine.

When Penn State Beaver engineering students built a working replica of Henry Ford’s first combustion engine in spring 2012, their professor, Jim Hendrickson, had one goal: run it for William Clay Ford Jr., the chairman of the Ford Motor Company.

“I invited Mr. Ford to come to campus to see it,” Hendrickson said. “Our understanding was that Henry Ford’s original was thrown out somewhere along the way. I thought his great-grandson would like to see one running.”

It took more than a year, but that goal has finally become reality, just not quite the way that Hendrickson envisioned.

A close up view of the Henry Ford kitchen sink engine.

The Henry Ford Kitchen Sink Engine

Jim Hendrickson, instructor in engineering at Penn State Beaver, is well-known for the projects he gives his students. For example, over the years, they’ve created a 3D model of a mill in Ohio; worked on the restoration and redesign of the waterwheel at Gaston’s Mill at Beaver Creek State Park near in Columbiana County, Ohio; and reverse-engineered the Bessemer oil field pumping engine at Moraine State Park in Butler County, Pennsylvania.

Image: Cathy Benscoter

“Could I actually do that? If I’m not completely certain I could, then it’s a good student project.”

—Jim Hendrickson

The Kitchen Sink

“The test of a good project to me is: Does it have historical significance?” Hendrickson said. “One of the things I try to do is make students appreciate how great something actually was in that time period because it’s hard to do now.”

His second test is: “Have any college students ever accomplished such a thing before? And if the answer is ‘no,’ it moves up on the list,” he said.

“And the last one is, ‘Could I actually do that?’ If I’m not completely certain I could, then it’s a good student project,” he said with a smile.

In 2012, Hendrickson had an idea for a project in his Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics course that met those criteria. While reading the owner’s manual to his grandfather’s 1908 Model T, Hendrickson said to himself, “We could build a car here.”

“But I thought that might be a little much, so I started puttering around a little bit,” he said, “and I discovered this engine, which nobody seems to know a whole lot about.” Ford’s first combustion engine, known as the Kitchen Sink Engine, was never installed in a vehicle. Instead, it served as a proof of concept for his first car, the 1896 Quadricycle. 

“The story goes that on Christmas Eve 1893, Henry Ford had his wife put down the turkey and come to the kitchen sink to help him start this thing,” Hendrickson said. The engine was plugged into a light socket, and Ford and his wife regulated the fuel intake by hand. They got it started, and Ford went on to automotive history.

Given the historical significance of that first Ford engine, re-creating one seemed like a great idea for a project, Hendrickson said. He handed it over to his class of 11 sophomores with ample funding. “Being a generous sort, I gave them a budget of $1,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

The $1 budget went to a cup of coffee.“We shared it to stay awake while we were working on the engine.” 

—Brennen Koji

“When Mr. Hendrickson gave us the Henry Ford project, I looked at what was required and I thought, ‘Oh, we are all so dead,’ ” said Valerie Fudurich, a nuclear engineering major from Monaca. Michael Eiben, project manager and architectural engineering major from Wexford, said, “We got this massive project,” but little by little, serious effort and teamwork pulled it all together.

The lack of funding meant that the students had to fabricate the parts themselves or accept donations. Mostly, they made the parts in the garage of team member Allie Stewart, whose father owns a machine shop. “We hand-machined parts and put them together to create a running engine,” said Stewart, an aerospace engineering major from Georgetown, Pennsylvania.

Brennen Koji, a petroleum engineering major from McMurray, Pennsylvania, said that the team built an engine from scratch. “We harnessed explosions and turned them into mechanical energy.”

Once the engine was working, Hendrickson contacted Ford Motor Co. to invite William Clay Ford Jr. to campus for a demonstration but that invitation didn’t get a response.

Penn State Beaver alumnus John Grace, managing engineer of the paint facility at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant, connected Hendrickson with Jim Johnson, senior manager of creative programs at The Henry Ford. Johnson was immediately interested and Hendrickson knew why: “The replica they have doesn’t work. Ours does.”

People view the Henry Ford kitchen sink engine.

Watching the Kitchen Sink Engine Work

In early May, five students accompanied Jim Hendrickson to the Henry Ford Museum to deliver the Kitchen Sink Engine. Since June, it has been running several times a day at Greenfield Village’s Bagely Avenue Workshop, a re-creation of the shed where Ford built the engine and the Quadricycle. “People gather around when they hear it,” said museum presenter Mary Finnan. “I’ve really had fun running it and telling people about it and the students who made it.”

Image: Cathy Benscoter

Detroit Road Trip

Johnson invited Hendrickson and his students to display their replica at 2012 Maker Faire Detroit, an invention fair hosted annually by the museum. “Everyone loved seeing the engine run and hearing the students talk about it,” Johnson said, including the judges of the fair, who awarded the students three blue ribbons.

Clara Deck, the museum’s senior conservator of historical resources, choked up when she saw the reproduction running. “We have the original, but I’ve never seen it run,” she said, swiping at a tear. Why didn't the museum have a working model? "We've never had anyone who had the time to tinker with it," Deck said. 

After the campus’s successful appearance at Maker Faire, Hendrickson offered to lend the museum the engine to display. In fall 2012, Hendrickson began discussions with Tom Varitek, senior manager of program operations at The Henry Ford, who wanted a working model of the engine for Ford's 150th birthday celebration in summer 2013. 

Penn State Beaver’s engine was a perfect match for the exhibit, Varitek said, and showed how history is being used the classroom. “That, to me,” he said, “worked better than trying to restore our own model.”

The night of July 30, 2013, the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford’s birth, William Clay Ford Jr. hosted a dinner at the museum for members of the Detroit Economic Club. Guests took rides in Model Ts and strolled the streets of the village. And at the heart of it all was Penn State Beaver’s Kitchen Sink Engine.

“Everybody got such a kick out of it. It was really fun to watch their reactions,” said Micki Kitchen, manager of community life and industry programs. “Everybody,” of course, included William Clay Ford Jr. himself.

“I didn’t really expect it was going to be something that would end up on display at The Henry Ford. That part of it kind of took on a life of its own.” —Jim Hendrickson

The little engine that could

The engine was originally scheduled to return home in early September, but Kitchen asked to extend the run until the end of October to dovetail with school field trip season. With the engine’s undeniable success at the museum under his belt, Hendrickson has set his sights higher. “My goal is to get their replica and bring it back to get it started,” he said.

But Varitek and Kitchen have a different idea. “The replica we have is kind of junky. It’s been on display a long time and might be hard to fix up,” Kitchen said. “We’re more interested in having Jim’s students build a new one for us than in trying to fix the old one.”

Hendrickson is open to that idea. “That could end up being the ultimate project, a collaboration between our students and Ford," he said. "It would be a real-life situation where the students are fabricating parts and building a product to the client’s specifications."

Hendrickson pondered the idea for a moment, and a hint of a smile appeared. “I’ll have to give that some thought,” he said. “It could be a very good project indeed.”

See more about this project on the Penn State Beaver website.