Charles Edgar Duryea was born on December 15th, 1861 in Canton, Illinois. Frank, his younger brother was born on October 8, 1869 in Washburn, Illinois. They both were the sons of a farmer, George Washington Duryea and his wife Louisa Melvina Turner in Canton. After completing his graduation from the Gittings Seminary high school, at LeHarpe, Illinois in 1882, Charles learned the trade of a mechanic. Following that he started taking an interest in the flourishing business of bicycle repairs, one of the greatest 'growth sectors' of the 1880s and 1890s.
Frank moved East of the country to obtain a practical knowledge of mechanics, for he like his brother was also inclined towards it. Some time later, Charles along with his younger brother James Frank, moved to Washington D.C.. H.S. Owen, one of the city's leading bicycle dealer and importer, employed both the brothers in his bicycle shop. Later on, Frank gained further knowledge while studying tool making and machine construction in various shops in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The concept of self propelled transportation always fascinated Charles right from his childhood. Using a 42 inch wheel as the front wheel obtained from a corn cultivator, a tiny wheel from a toy cart for the rear wheel and using a curved sapling for the frame, he built a high wheel bicycle in his teens. In 1882, predicting the advent of the automobile, Charles wrote a thesis on 'Rapid Transit', in which he prophesied that a flying machine would be able to cross the Atlantic ocean in half a day.
Charles entered the cycle trade and he moved to St. Louis. But very soon, he shifted to Peoria, Illinois. In Peoria, he started a business in partnership to produce drop framed ladies bicycles, the Sylph. His bicycles were one of the earliest in the period. His partner was a man named Rouse.
From Peoria, Charles went to Washington D.C. When he was in Washington, Charles got himself the habit of regularly reading the Patent Office Gazette. There is no doubt that this habit later significantly influenced his interest in automobiles. Some time later, he contracted to build bicycles for a firm in Rockaway, New Jersey and moved there. In Jersey he was joined by his younger brother Frank who had gained enough knowledge in machine making. During all these wanderings, at one point, Charles visited the 1886 Ohio State Fair. There he saw a crude internal combustion engine built by H.K. Shanck, a mechanic from Dayton. The mechanic had built hoping to adapt it to drive a tricycle.
In 1890, both Charles and Frank moved to Chicopee, a northern suburb in Springfield, Massachusetts to work for the Ames Manufacturing Company. Charles realized that after finishing his work, he had ample time to carry out experimentation with his newly found obsession in gasoline powered vehicles. Charles had developed an idea for an engine powered carriage and according to some, this idea was spawned after reading an issue of the Scientific American in which an article about Karl Benz' work was published. He was also interested in the Otto Cycle developed by Nickolas Otto.
But there were many problems with the Otto four stroke cycle which was the interest of everybody. On the completion of its exhaust stroke, the engine did not evacuate entirely all the products of combustion. In an attempt to solve this problem, an engine called the Atkinson engine was patented in 1887, which had a more efficient cycle. The major drawback of this engine was its big size which made it impractical for its use in carriages.
In that period, a significant interest was developing in the infant automotive field. Some of the early tinkerers were nondescript while others were made like the automobiles we see today. So many individuals changed their fortunes through this field and so many lost theirs. The early automobile related newspapers that were published then would have a list of new forming corporations and the names of the companies which were declaring bankruptcy. According to a very conservative estimate the number of automobile builders in that period was over seven hundred.
Charles visited the Hartford Machine Screw Company, Hartford, Connecticut while on his business trip. The Company produced the Daimler type engines but after careful examination, Charles felt that they were too heavy and clunky for their automobile. In Hartford itself he met C.E. Hawley, an employee of another firm, the Pope Manufacturing Company and discussed with him the construction of a satisfactory engine.
Hawley suggested that if the engine was to be built light weight then the piston should be made in a free position. That way the engine would perform just like the Atkinson engine but would be light and compact which was required for the vehicles operation. Hawley had in fact, without trying to build it, had designed such an engine which had a 'free piston' fitted over the normal piston to open and close the exhaust valve. But the friction transmission designed was of dubious practicality. Charles believed that the suggestion from Hawley had some merit in it. Later on, they took this suggestion into the designing of their first engine.
When Charles got back to Chicopee, he started his preliminary work on building his first machine. Placing the engine in a reverse position to that of in a Benz automobile, Charles and Frank designed their horseless carriage so that the flywheel was in the front rather then in the rear. But they placed the crankshaft vertically similar to that of Benz vehicle. This arrangement facilitated the rotation of flywheel in horizontal position.
During August every year, the Ames plant used to have a shut down customarily. This provided Charles and Frank ample needed space to carry out their experimentation and make up working drawings for their vehicle. It is believed that Frank Harrington, the chief draftsman at the Ames Plant, might have helped the brothers to design their vehicle's drawing.
Charles needed some capital to carry out the project of his intended vehicle. He sought one old carriage, a place to work and a mechanic to carry out the works. On the March 26, 1892, he bought an old ladies phaeton from the Smith Carriage Company for $70. Other then the upholstery and the candle lamps, everything else was in a deplorable condition.
Erwin F. Markham of Springfield was ready to finance the Duryea project and on the March 28th, a contract was signed between him and Charles Duryea. According to the contract, Markham had to invest $1000, for which he was to receive the five-tenths share of the venture. If this amount was utilized before the project was over, he was free to either continue his aid till the end of the project and retain half his share or refuse further funds and relinquish four of the five-tenths share in the business.
Charles also found ample working place and machinery which was available at John W. Russell & Sons Company in Springfield. To carry out the works, he hired his brother Frank. Charles offered him a ten percent raise in the salary he got at the Ames Company. Frank started his work on the April 4th. He had to remove the damaged and worn out accessories of the used vehicle. Then he altered some of the mechanism.
Charles Marshall on Taylor Street fabricated most of the patterns for the castings. The casting of the engine resembled a length of cast iron pipe. The engine did not have any water jackets, the idea was that that the engine would get cooled on its own by placing it in the open air. There were four bolts which passed through the halves of the bearings and then onto the four projections on the open end of the engine, securing the engine to the vehicle.
As previously suggested by C.E. Hawley, a rather ordinary ringed piston was attached to the connecting rod making the arrangement very strange looking. Over that, a ringless and free piston was fitted, machined to fit the cylinder bore very closely. This floating piston could move freely the distance which was equal to the compression space. On the exhaust stroke, this unrestrained piston moved all the way to the head, expelling all the products of combustion and pushed the exhaust valve shut again.
The bore of this engine was less then four inches, which Charles believed was enough to develop three horsepower and generate three hundred to four hundred revolutions per minute. Initially, the vehicle was not provided any type of ignition and so an open end of a four and a half inch length of a quarter inch pipe was screwed into the head of the engine while the other end was closed. On heating this tube with an alcohol burner, a portion of the fuel mixture, which was forced into the end of the compression stroke, was ignited. At this point of time the brothers did not try to use the electrical make and break circuit for ignition, as it could have damaged the ignition parts of the exhaust stroke.
After attaching all the various parts of the engine, Charles and Frank decided to test the engine in mid 1892. As there was no carburetor, they tried to run the engine by spinning the flywheel by hand and simultaneously spraying gasoline through the intake valve with a perfume atomizer. Despite repeated attempts the engine refused to cough up.
In spite of this failure, they thought that the problem could be solved once the engine was fitted onto the vehicle. They mounted the engine to the carriage, shortening the original reach of the carriage. Charles, being a bicycle manufacturer, realized the need for a differential or balance gear and installed a light weight gear, used in Columbia tricycles, on the jackshaft.