John Tyler's water turbines

John Tyler was a New England millwright, businessman, and inventor in the latter half of the 1800s. He was born in Claremont in central New Hampshire in 1818. Perhaps his interest in water turbines and millwrighting came from his grandfather Benjamin Tyler who received a patent in 1804 for an improvement of the commonly used tub wheel which he termed a “wry fly” wheel; Benjamin’s 1804 patent has been credited as foreshadowing many of the key principles of modern turbines.

John Tyler apprenticed as a millwright for seven years and then became foreman of the same millwright’s shop in Barre, Vermont until about 1850 when he moved back to his old stomping grounds in the Connecticut River valley of central New Hampshire in West Lebanon. In the 1850s in West Lebanon, John continued his work as a millwright and worked on his own new ideas around water turbines. His first patent for an improved turbine appeared in 1855, and his 1856 U.S. Patent 15309 has the basic turbine design which was manufactured in Claremont and sold by the thousands through the next three decades. Tyler continued to develop turbines and published additional patents until 1874. (See more on John Tyler's patents.)

In the 1850s while still living in West Lebanon, John supervised the building of a large mill complex in Claremont that housed a large flour mill operation, and, not surprisingly was powered by Tyler turbines. This complex was built on the original site of "the old Tyler mills" built by John's grandfather Benjamin in 1785.

After 20 years in West Lebanon, Tyler moved 25 miles south back to his hometown of Claremont, New Hampshire in 1870 where he continued his career as a business owner, inventor, and millwright. He started a water company which built a reservoir and aqueduct serving part of Claremont and was part of owner of an inn and steamboats on Lake Sunapee (25 miles east of Lebanon). In the 1880s, John was a part owner and president of the Sugar River Paper Mills Company in Claremont which purchased and occupied the mill buildings on the Sugar River that he had built 30 years earlier (one of which - the grist mill - is still standing today and in use as apartment residences).

John Tyler’s accomplishments as a businessman, inventor, New Hampshire legislator, and wealthy Claremont citizen were prominent enough to earn a notice in the New York Times upon his death at age 78 on November 28, 1896.

Header image of John Tyler from Biographical Review, vol. XXI, 1907, p 327.
from a circa 1878 Putnam Tool Co. catalog
Vermont Yearbook. 1870. ad for Sullivan machine Co., p. 147.
Vermont Yearbook. 1870. ad for Sullivan machine Co., p. 147.

John Tyler's water wheel turbines.

The water wheel that John Tyler patented in the 1850s is a scroll-type, inward flow turbine made of iron. There is a control gate which is built directly into the turbine inlet. When the gate is opened, water flows into and around the scroll case, strikes the vanes on the runner, and flows out through the open bottom of the case. Figure on the right is from Scientific American, v. 11, no. 19, Nov. 5, 1864, p 289.

The turbine runner was available in cast or wrought (and later machined) iron (at higher cost) in sizes from 9 to 72 inches diameter with appropriately sized runner shaft and curb (case).

An additional feature added to the Tyler wheel in an 1864 patent (see patent table below) is an adjustable step bearing mechanism which allows for raising the thrust bearing (termed a step bearing) that supports the bottom of the runner shaft. These bearings are typically made from wood, so normal use causes wear of the bearing surface.

Interestingly, in contrast to many turbine designs, water flowing into the Tyler turbine curb through the control gate first strikes the convex side of the runner vanes. This is unusual enough that the first time the a group of Ledyard mill volunteers saw this when we inspected the turbine in the early 2000s there was speculation that the runner was installed upside down. It isn’t, and not surprisingly, the feature was not only intentional, but was highlighted as an advantage of the design by John Tyler in a 1869 price list and catalog (p. 3):

"The water works upon the convex or rounding side of the buckets, and on their extreme points, bearing upon all alike at the same time, keeping the water unbroken. This is a new feature and entirely different from any other wheel. In the Boyden, Warren, Jonval, United States, Vandewater, Leffel, Dayton, and many others, the buckets are similar in form. The water strikes upon the con-cave or hollow side of the buckets, breaks, and thus loses much of its power, besides being liable to choke and fill up with anchor-ice and floating substances, or to break and get out of order. No intelligent mill owner or mechanic can fail to see this or the advantages in the shape of the Tyler bucket."

The oddity of water first striking the convex side of the vanes is confirmed by a note written in long hand on an image from an original 1878 catalog which clarifies the image is of a "right hand wheel". (see image with long-hand note below for "1874 scroll wheel.")

So, is the feature of convex vanes an actual advantage, or simply John Tyler’s salesmanship? It would take a turbine engineer (which I am emphatically not) to make a technical determination of this for the overall Tyler design, but it’s clear that this feature did not persist in other turbines of the 19th century or today, or, in fact, in Tyler's own last two turbine patents.

Various biographies of John Tyler in Claremont and New Hampshire histories of the late 19th century ascribe both fame and wealth due to his turbine inventions. However, by the time of the 1892 edition of James Emerson’s Treatise (p. 61), the Tyler scroll wheel (of which Emerson had many compliments in the various editions of his book) was “of the past, and out of place where economy is desirable.”

Tyler Wheels were used throughout the United States

The Tyler turbine was used in “most of the states and Territories” of the U.S and Canada. Based on the locations listed and testimonials in the trade pamphlets and ads in the bibliography below, a great many of these were in New England and the Northeast U.S.

There were Tyler wheel in mills throughout the northeast (and, in fact, the entire country) including Shaker communities in Enfield NH, Canterbury NH, and New Lebanon NY, and also the famous Slater mill complex in Rhode Island that was a key early site in the U.S. during the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution.

Tyler’s original turbine was sold from the late 1850s into the 1880s and underwent several design changes. In addition to his popular scroll-type turbine, Tyler designed a few other types which apparently were not widely used.

The Tyler company literature lists locations of use along with satisfied customer testimonial statements. Of course customer experiences and satisfaction can cut both ways. There are a number of testimonials published by Tyler that cite advantages compared to Leffel turbines including Sylvester Smith of of Seymour CT who said the Tyler turbine he installed was "better than a Leffel Wheel", but a 1868 Leffel catalog lists a half dozen testimonials indicating that the Leffel wheel was better than the Tyler wheels they had used. S. Loring of Plymouth Massachusetts said that their new 26 ½ inch Leffel wheel could do 50 percent more work than the 36 inch Tyler Wheel they had previously.

Sales progress can be tracked via claims in various Tyler ads and publications (though some of the sales after 1870 may include Tyler’s flume wheel, in addition to the original scroll wheel design).

For sources see Water turbine references.

Original scroll wheel

This is the Tyler turbine from his early 1868 patent and probably was the turbine that initially brought the company major success. Thousands of these turbines were sold.

This is the Tyler turbine model that is still powers Ledyard Up-down Sawmill.

Left panel, Tylers turbine. Scientific American, v. 11, no. 19, Nov. 5, 1864, p 289. Right panel, Tyler Improved Water Wheel Turbine, 1869 trade catalog, p. 33. W.G. VanName Collection, Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Karnes Archives & Special Collections.

1874 scroll wheel

Tyler and other turbine designers of the mid-late 19th century were inveterate tinkerers, in part because many turbines makers were designed by playing with shapes and parts rather than by engineering. But new designs were also instituted for marketing purposes ("new and improved" has long been a core marketing principle), or in response to a big-selling design by a competitor.

The key change in the 1874 patent was the shape of runner and vanes. Like the runner in the earlier patents, the runners were curved so the the convex face of the runner received the water from the gate. (See more notes on this patent on the Tyler makers and patents page.)

See Tyler salesman's model for photos of this turbine design.

Image from an original 1878 Putnam Machine Co. catalog.

Wheel with gate

The claimed purpose of the inner cylinder gate is to "keep the water compact" in situations where streams are very variable". Yeah, maybe. Patented in 1866 (US 52625), this turbine was no longer listed in an 1878 Putnam Machine Co. catalog. A model of this turbine is held by the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College.

Image from Tyler Improved Water Wheel Turbine, 1869 trade catalog, p. 29. W.G. VanName Collection, Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Karnes Archives & Special Collections.

Horizontal wheel

A turbine sold for sites with "very high heads and small quantities of water". Perhaps intended for mining operations in the American West where this situation was common.

Image from an original 1878 Putnam Machine Co. catalog.

Flume wheel

Used in situations in which the entire turbine is placed inside a wood flume box.

Image from an original 1878 Putnam Machine Co. catalog.

See turbine bibliography at Water turbine references