Student project on exhibit at Henry Ford Museum

A $1 budget and an 1893 engine earned a group of Penn State Beaver students a trip to Detroit and the opportunity to have their project become an exhibit at a world-renowned museum.

In 2012, a Penn State Beaver engineering students had $1 to reverse engineer Henry Ford’s first combustion engine and build a working replica of it.

The engine caught the attention of officials at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and the students were invited to display it in the Ford Motor Company tent at the 2012 Maker Faire Detroit.

Eleven sophomores built the engine from donated and fabricated parts for their spring 2012 Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics course taught by James Hendrickson, instructor of engineering. 

“When Mr. Hendrickson gave us the Henry Ford project, I looked at what was required and I thought, ‘Oh, we are all so dead,’ ” mechanical engineering major Valerie Fudurich of Monaca, Pa., said.

Ford’s first combustion engine was never installed in a vehicle. Instead, it served as a proof of concept for his 1896 quadricycle.

“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,” said Hendrickson. The engine, which had no battery, was plugged into a wall socket, and Ford and his wife, Clara, regulated the fuel intake by hand. “Even he had trouble getting it started,” Hendrickson said.

The students’ project involved researching Henry Ford, creating 3D models and schematics of the engine, and building the replica from parts that they often had to make themselves.

“We built a working engine out of scratch,” said Brennen Koji, petroleum engineering major from McMurray, Pa. “We harnessed explosions and turned them into mechanical energy.”

Eventually, the project started to attract attention. “The more and more we got interested in it, the more and more other people got interested in it,” project manager Michael Eiben, an architectural engineering major from Wexford, Pa., said. “We were definitely having an influence, not just with us but also with everybody who saw it.”

Some of that attention came from Detroit. When Penn State Beaver alumnus John Grace, who is the paint manufacturing engineering manager at Ford, heard about the engine, he told his contacts at the museum about it.

The museum owns the original engine, but it’s in storage and isn’t allowed to be started. A replica of the engine is on display in the museum’s Greenfield Village. But it has a problem.

“The replica they have doesn’t work. Ours does,” Hendrickson said.

Jim Johnson, the museum’s senior manager of creative programs, said that fact alone drew his attention. “When we found out that the students had a reproduction that actually works, we were very interested.”

So interested that in 2013 the museum arranged with Penn State to display the engine indefinitely at Greenfield Village. Since then, it's been demonstrated several times a day for visitors. 

Hendrickson is still a bit awed by the attention the project has gotten from museum officials. “My biggest surprise is how it’s been adopted by them,” he said. “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.”

Oh, and what happened to that $1 budget?

“We bought a cup of coffee and shared it to get the energy to finish the project,” said Koji.