By the death of George Henry Corliss, America has lost the best-known engineer she has ever produced. In all the countries of the world where steam engines are employed the name of Corliss has been heard, and ranks next in familiarity to that of Watt. Indeed it has become so much a part of our technical vocabulary that many engineers will learn with surprise that little more than a month ago the owner of it was not only alive, but was the active head of the Corliss Steam Engine Company, of Providence, R.I. Many men verging on middle age found the Corliss engine an established fact when they entered on their apprenticeship, and hence they have been disposed to class its invention with the events of ancient history, and its inventor with those who are either dead or superannuated. There could, however, be no greater mistake. Mr. Corliss has, it is true, passed away full of years and honours, but he was busy up to the last week of his life with a new Pawtucket pumping engine, and with the reorganization of the factory with which he was connected. He did not suffer any gradual breakdown beyond that which the burden of seventy-one years must always impose. A gastric attack brought on fever, and in a few days paralysis, and on February 21st last this ended in death.
Mr. Corliss was not trained to mechanical pursuits in his youth, but the bias of his mind was always towards engineering. While keeping a country store, he took in hand the re-erection of a bridge, which had been carried away by a freshet, and he completed it in spite of the universal verdict, which was pronounced against the practicability of his scheme. Soon after he was engaged on the production of a machine for stitching leather, although at that time the wonderful invention of Howe had not been heard of. He was then twenty-six years of age, having been born at Easton, Washington County, N.Y., on June 2,1817. Six years he had spent in a village school and three years in an academy at Castleton, Vt. He was twenty-one years of age when he opened his store and twenty-seven, when he associated himself with John Barstow and E. J. Nightingale, under the name of Corliss, Nightingale, and Co., of Providence, R.I. Two years later he commenced his improvements of the steam engine, and in 1849 he took out patents to protect his invention. It was an uphill fight for an unknown man to introduce a new and complicated form of engine with its delicate machinery and all its possibilities of breakdown. Both engine builders and manufacturers looked dubiously upon the ingenious gear for opening and closing the valves, and had not the inventor had implicit confidence in the value of his engine he must have failed to introduce it in the face of the opposition, which it aroused. But in spite of every discouragement he persevered, and after a few engines had been got to work they became their own testimonials, giving an unheard-of economy of fuel and a regular turning which was greatly appreciated in the cotton mills of Rhode Island. The first Corliss engine, which came to Europe was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and took the highest prize. The rapidity with which the principle was accepted on the Continent is shown by the fact that out of 400 engines shown at Vienna in 1873, only six years later, the majority were of the Corliss type. In recognition of this, the highest award was made to Mr. Corliss, although he did not exhibit. At the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, Mr. Corliss, who was one of the executive committee, provided an engine of 1400 horse-power, which turned all the machinery in the building, and excited the greatest enthusiasm on all hands. About this time honours fell thickly upon him. The Rumford medal was awarded him in 1870 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 1878 the Institution of France presented him with the Montoyon medal, the highest honour for mechanical achievement; in 1886 the King of Belgium made him an officer of the Order of Leopold.
Among his fellow-citizens Mr. Corliss, whose portrait we annex, found ample recognition, but he did not choose to avail himself of it to any great extent. He was, however, in the State Senate in 1868-70, and was a presidential elector in 1876. He refused the offices of mayor and governor. Mr. Corliss was twice married, and leaves a son and a daughter.
- Engineering Magazine Volume 45, 23 Mar 1888, pg. 295