Puzzling out Richard Pearse’s engine
The riddle of Richard Pearse has been a source of fascination amongst anyone with an interest in New Zealand’s shed culture. How could a man on a remote South Canterbury farm manage to build a machine that could get airborne at around the same time that Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight?
Consider this: Richard Pearse’s design has more in common with modern aircraft than the machine flown at Kittyhawk in 1903. Ailerons, a direct-drive propeller at the front and a tricycle undercarriage are all seen today on light aircraft.
So the questions remain:
- Is Pearse’s design actually capable of controlled flight? and
- Did Pearse fly but just didn’t consider his flights to be practical enough to be worthy of being called controlled flight?
Trying to get a better understanding of Pearse’s extraordinary work and put his design to the test has been a nine-year journey for retired automotive engineer Ivan Mudrovich who has built an aircraft based on the recovered engine remnants and Pearse’s 1906 patent applications.
In 1958, Ivan bought some equipment and started an engine reconditioning business from his garage at home before opening his own company that he ran until his retirement. While he built up a strong reputation for building high-performance speedway engines, he never got into racing.
“I may be mad but I’m not that mad” he says.
When Ivan sold his business in 2001, the pick of his equipment came home with him. Packed into his small garage are a lathe, mill, several cylinder boring machines, a piston grinder, a piston casting machine and a big-end borer converted to boring gudgeon pin holes. A rebuilt BSA motorbike engine sits on a bench waiting for Ivan to finish with his Pearse project.
In 2004, Ivan, not long into his retirement, had just got out of hospital from heart surgery when he was approached by a committee of Pearse enthusiasts to look at building a working model of Pearse’s two-cylinder engine. After a couple of meetings, Ivan quickly realised that his temperament was not suited to working with committees and if he was going to do it, it would be on his own terms and so he started his own project.
Ivan has gone a long way in unlocking the secrets of Richard Pearse’s designs and has built a double-acting, two-cylinder engine using the description from Pearse’s 1906 patent application and measurements from salvaged engine pieces.
It hasn’t been easy. Almost all of Pearse’s drawings have been lost, the only items that remain are his patent applications, some notes, newspaper articles and some mechanical relics.
Richard Pearse historian and biographer Gordon Ogilvie reported that in 1971 he excavated from a Lower Waitohi farm dump the irrigation-pipe cylinders from Richard Pearse’s rudimentary 2-cylinder, horizontally opposed, double-acting “oil engine”. In an address at the South Canterbury Museum in Timaru where the Richard Pearse Archives are housed, reported in The Press newspaper, he said the excavation was with the help of Maurice Cameron who had searched the farm 13 years earlier on behalf of George Bolt and recovered relics of one of Pearse’s four-cylinder engines with propeller and crankshaft.
As Pearse built several engines, including at least one for a motorbike, the pieces that were recovered from the dump were a bit of a mystery box. Discovering whether the parts were from working engines or discarded experiments was like attempting to complete a jigsaw with half the pieces missing, parts from other jigsaws thrown in and with the possibility that some of the original jigsaw had been modified and used for yet another jigsaw. However, Ivan has painstakingly gone through and tried to make sense of it all.
Read more in the Dec - Jan 2014 issue of The Shed