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The Forgotten History of the Rotary Engine

Something is obscure in the history of the rotary engine. With time, originators and patentees of this unique technology were forgotten; many did not know the very idea to be as old as four hundred years ago.

Agostino Ramelli designed, back in the 16th century, which was the very first known rotary-piston water pump that ever was. It could raise and lower water mechanically back in the year 1588. Years later, the Scottish engineer James Watt based his design on previous models of steam engines but changed the traditional drive chain or rod into smooth and efficient rotary motion.

To most of us, the engine reminds us of the work by Dr. Felix Wankel way back in the 1950s, who came up with DKM and KKM models that later on became the base of that iconic powerplant rotary developed by Mazda. Although some sources have upbringing, the true precursor of the rotary engines of today may go as far back as 1898, however, when Fay Oliver Farwell designed the first working rotary engine, it was built by Adams Company of Dubuque in Iowa.

This four-stroke, three-cylinder design spun on a fixed crankshaft, eliminating the need for a conventional cooling system. It was thus considerably lighter and smaller when compared with the smallest piston engines of the time because of this alone. In 1905, complete cars using this pioneering rotary powerplant were marketed and sold by the Adams-Farwell Company to a combined total of 52 units built.

Development of the Adams-Farwell engine continued with Farwell himself fitting a more powerful five-cylinder version of 50 horsepower into one of his cars. As many as two of the lightweight rotary engines powered the blades of an early helicopter, and reports had them successfully lifting the craft off the ground in 1909.

These innovations overshadowed the place of the rotary engine in history. Today, only three original Adams-Farwell engines are remaining, preserved in places like the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, and the Smithsonian Institute. This remarkable legacy of the rotary remains an often overlooked chapter in the evolution of automotive technology.

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