Richards Steam Engine Indicator, ca 1864

An engine indicator is an instrument for graphically recording the pressure versus piston displacement through an engine stroke cycle. Engineers use the resulting diagram to check the design and performance of the engine. This indicator was designed and patented (U.S. Patent No. 37980) by C.B. Richards of Hartford, CT in 1863. This particular unit was manufactured by Elliott Brothers of London, England. The American Steam Gauge Co. of Boston, MA also manufactured this type of indicator. Made of brass, it consists of a cylinder and piston and a separate drum mounted on a parallel axis holding the recording paper. The piston causes the stylus to rise and fall with pressure changes in the engine under measurement thereby directly recording the indicator’s output on the paper. Around the drum’s base is wound a cord that is attached to the connecting rod of the piston on the steam engine being measured. This causes the drum to rotate as the engine’s piston moves. An internal coil spring causes the cord to retract and the drum to counter rotate back to its original position as the connecting rod returns. The result is a steam pressure-volume diagram which is used to measure the efficiency and other attributes of the steam engine. The Richards Indicator was a significant improvement over the then standard McNaught Indicator which was not fully satisfactory for measurements of high speed steam engines. Richards' patent for his indicator makes note of the lightness and short stroke of the indicator's piston. This reduced the inertia of the moving parts of the unit and enabled its use on high speed engines. Richards’ patent also added a system of levers to the recording stylus in order to multiply the piston range by a factor of four while still producing a straight vertical motion proportional to the piston extension. This enabled a large and legible diagram to be traced on the drum even with the reduced piston range. The levers and pencil are made from lightweight materials to again reduce inertia.
The introduction of the steam indicator in the late 1790s and early 1800s by James Watt and others had a great impact on the understanding of how the steam behaved inside the engine's cylinder and thereby enabled much more exacting and sophisticated designs. The devices also changed how the economics and efficiency of steam engines were portrayed and marketed. They helped the prospective owner of a machine better understand how much his fuel costs would be for a given amount of work performed. Measurement of fuel consumed and work delivered by the engine was begun by Watt, who in part justified the selling price of his engines on the amount of fuel cost the purchaser might save compared to an alternate engine. In the early days of steam power, the method to compare engine performance was based on a concept termed the engine’s “duty”. It originally was calculated as the number of pounds of water raised one foot high per one bushel of coal consumed. The duty method was open to criticism due to its inability to take into consideration finer points of efficiency in real world applications of engines . Accurate determination of fuel used in relation to work performed has been fundamental to the design and improvement of all steam-driven prime movers ever since Watt’s time. And, the steam indicators’ key contribution was the accurate measurements of performance while the engine was actually doing the work it was designed to do. This Richards steam indicator represented over one hundred years of evolution and improvement of the devices. Its ability to make recordings on high speed steam engines was a significant improvement for many applications.
Currently not on view
date made
Elliott Brothers
Physical Description
brass (overall material)
paper (overall material)
indicator: 8 in x 8 1/2 in x 2 3/4 in; 20.32 cm x 21.59 cm x 6.985 cm
overall: 3 1/4 in x 9 1/2 in x 8 1/2 in; 8.255 cm x 24.13 cm x 21.59 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Steam Engines
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanical and Civil Engineering
Measuring & Mapping
Engineering, Building, and Architecture
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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