The name James Atkinson can be found in science, literary and engineering – actually at least three different people! The engineer (one of many it seems) is the focus of this article.
Atkinson was born in 1846 in Lancashire in the north of England into a family of engineers – his grandfather owned the Hope Foundry that made many steam locomotives. As a young man, he went to the coast to undertake an apprenticeship in marine engineering before heading to inland to work more on railway technology. He then joined his brother for more marine engineering for several years.
The railway and marine engineering at that time was focused on steam power and so he worked with a boiler maker to improve the efficiency of the delivery of the steam. This ultimately lead him to researching gas powered engines which then lead to him forming his own company as a consulting engineer.
Atkinson redeveloped the Otto Cycle engine to make it more efficient. His theory was that an engine could extract more power from the expansion stroke by allowing the pressure to drop further than the Otto engine. This was done by allowing the power stroke to last longer and this meant improved thermal efficiency by extracting more energy from the same amount of fuel. Whilst contracted to the British Gas and Engineering Company, he developed three different types of engine:
- The Differential in 1882
- The Cycle in 1887
- The Utilite in 1892
All three used a cycle that became known as the Atkinson Cycle and had a short compression stroke with a much longer power stroke. The Differential used opposed pistons, however this wasn’t a boxer engine because the two pistons were in the same cylinder! The Cycle used another arm in the conrod to create four piston strokes to one revolution of the crankshaft and the Utilite was a simple two-stroke motor.
He had taken a version of the Cycle engine to Philadelphia to introduce it to the Franklin Institute, who promptly awarded him the John Scott Legacy Medal – the first non-American to receive one. This medal is now part of the Benjamin Franklin Medal series for engineering.
Atkinson was a pioneer who was testing different designs to improve the efficiency of an internal combustion engine and his work culminated in being the chief engineer at Crossley, one of Britain’s first car manufacturers. The Crossley Brothers started by manufacturing engines and bought the world rights to the Otto patents – all except for Germany and they also bought the rights to Rudolph Diesel’s engine design as well.
The Atkinson Cycle took a back seat for decades as car engines standardised on the Otto Cycle and they became dominant for the majority of petrol powered motors. However with the 1973 Fuel Crisis and the rising cost of oil, Atkinson’s ideas took on a new life. His engine cycle provided good power and good fuel efficiency, so several manufacturers, notably Toyota, revisited the design and started to use it as the basis of a more efficient motor.
Interestingly, the Atkinson Cycle is mostly used today on turbocharged hybrid motors because the cycle doesn’t allow enough air in, so the turbo is used to ram more air into the cylinder to compensate.
James Atkinson died in 1914 aged 67 near London after a lifetime of engineering research. He was not the James Atkinson that invented the famous “Little Nipper” mousetrap – although both men lived in the same areas at the same time!