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OPINION: The great inventions my cousin and I collaborated on!

April 14, 2021 at 5:22 a.m.

My cousin Bill Sisk and I never became the famous inventors that we once aspired to be, but we did have a lot of fun dreaming up designs and plans for inventing a new kind of engine for cars. Back in the 1950s, Cousin Bill and I used to get together and invent, or to aspire to invent, some grand innovations for car motors.

Cousin Bill was about seven years older than I. When we were collaborating with the idea of working out a great new kind of car engine, he was in his early 20s and I was in my mid-teens. We were working on two kinds of ideas for powering cars differently from the usual reciprocating piston internal combustion engine that was common in the cars and trucks of those days.

One, we wanted to invent an electric-powered car which would also have an internal combustion engine powering a generator to keep the batteries charged.

Two, we were going to invent a rotary gasoline engine which would do away with the need for crank shafts and pistons and connecting rods which had been around for the entire era of motor-powered vehicles. And, of course we were going to sell our ideas to Ford Motor Company or one of the other major car makers, and as cars were sold with our new power plants, we would make our first million dollars.

To tell part of the ending of the story first, we soon learned that Mazda had come up with a rotary engine that they called the Wankel engine, and that it would soon be an option for buyers of Mazda automobiles. So, Bill and I were out-flanked. Somebody else got there first with their ideas for a fully rotary engine.

Then, I went to college and Bill took on full-time employment, so we were distracted from our inventing time. We never really got it together again; life moved on for both of us, and before we knew it both of us were old men who still hadn't become famous inventors and still hadn't made our first million.

Maybe we shouldn't have given up our rotary engine idea back there in the late 1950s. For several years, Mazda sold cars with their rotary engine option, but after a time they found that excessive wear problems limited the life of those engines, and even though their performance was good, the overall satisfaction of the new power plants was not good. So, the Mazda version of the rotary engine was soon shelved, and the company went back to relying on the old standby reciprocating piston engine designs.

Interestingly, here we are, 60 years later, with motor-powered automobiles having a history of some 120 venerable years, and in 2018 we are still relying primarily on reciprocating piston engines to power our cars and trucks and tractors and trains and small airplanes.

Cousin Bill and I took our idea for a rotary engine from the vacuum pump which at the time was powering the milking machine for our milking barn on the farm. The design of the pump featured a rotor operating within a cylindrical chamber. The rotor was smaller than the chamber, and was offset so that the rotor's upper side was touching the top of the chamber. The rotor had four slots with vanes moving in and out to maintain their contact with the inner surface of the chamber.

Bill and I thought we could use that design to create rotary power by adding an intake system and a combustion chamber such that the expansive power of burning gasoline would push against the revolving vanes and rotor. On looking back, that vacuum pump in the dairy barn eventually gave trouble, because the vanes would wear ripples in the inside of the chamber. Bill and I would probably have had the same kind of wear problem that the Mazda people experienced with their design. Basically, even over many decades, inventors have had a hard time coming up with engine designs that work better than the old reciprocating piston engine which has been the automotive mainstay for more than a hundred years.

The idea that Cousin Bill and I came up with for an electric car was much like the hybrid cars that are being sold in significant numbers today; cars such as the Toyota Prius. We were going to power the wheels with electric motors, and also use a regular gasoline engine to turn a generator that would continually charge the batteries. We would also use the hills to charge the batteries, because going downhill could supply charging power and would not require engine power. We thought that we would only need about a 5-horsepower motor to charge the car batteries. OK, that obviously wouldn't have been enough engine power to charge batteries in such a vehicle. We would later learn that numerous attempts had been made back in the 1920s to produce electric cars, some with engine/generator combinations, but none had been successful on the market. Across the years, battery capacity has been a huge obstacle for electric car designs. Maybe with continuing battery improvements, electric cars and hybrids will finally come to take the lead.

Cousin Bill and I might never have made it as automotive engineers. Nevertheless, we did have great fun with our imaginations and ideas and our grand inventive schemes and conversations.

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Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. Opinions are those of the writer. This column was originally published Jan. 9, 2019. Mr. Nichols can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.

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