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George Henry Corliss
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George Henry Corliss
Born June 2, 1817(1817-06-02)
Easton, New York
Died February 21, 1888 (aged 70)
Occupation Mechanical Engineer
Employer Corliss Steam Engine Company
Known for Improvements to Steam Engine

George Henry Corliss (June 2, 1817 – February 21, 1888) was an American inventor, mechanical engineer, and the inventor of the Corliss steam engine. The Corliss engine is considered to have been the innovation that made steam power more economically efficient, (i.e., cheaper) than water power.[1]


From the History of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, NY: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1920:

"GEORGE HENRY CORLISS -- The assertion is sometimes made that in spite of certain notable exceptions, the type of mind possessed by inventive geniuses is rarely capable of dealing with the commercial or business aspect of life, and we have the popular and familiar picture of the unsuspecting ingenuous inventor fleeced of the well-earned profit from his devices by the sophisticated and scheming business man. If this be so it is strange enough, for, to the layman at least, there seems to be no incompatibility between the mind that can grasp the highly practical problems of physical and mechanical science and the very similar problems of everyday business relations, but rather a parity such as to suggest that they are of one and the same kind. However this may be, it is certain that the remarkable group of American inventors of the generations just passed, whose achievements have given rise to the wide-spread respect for 'Yankee genius', were not afflicted with any such one-sidedness of character. They, at least, were not deprived of their just deserts, and were quite equally capable of producing their masterpieces of mechanical skill and of marketing them to their own best advantage and to that of the world at large. And if they thus prove this belief as to the one-sidedness of genius to be false, they no less dispose of another fallacy, the notion, namely, that such a union of abilities shows a man to have developed the material side of his nature at the expense of the spiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth, as these men have well shown in their lives, wherein were displayed that essential spirit of democracy that is but another form of the Christian virtue of charity, and even those higher reaches of idealism expressed in religion and art. Such, for example, was the character of the late George H. Corliss, of Providence, R. I., whose death there on February 21, 1888, deprived that community of one of its most prominent and highly honored citizens, and the world at large of a benefactor and one of its foremost inventors. Mr. Corliss was sprung from one of the best and most ancient of the old Colonial families which had spent the years previous to the Revolution in New England, but after that epoch-making struggle lived in New York State.

The founder of the family in this country was George Corliss, a native of Devonshire, England, where he was born about 1617, a son of Thomas Corliss. The young man came to the colonies when about twenty-two years of age and settled at Newbury, Mass., in 1639. This was but temporary, however, and he shortly after removed to Haverhill in the same colony, this town becoming the permanent home of the family until the time of John Corliss, five generations later, the grandfather of the Hon. George Henry Corliss of this review. George Corliss, the immigrant, became the owner of a handsome farm at Haverhill and it was here that several generations of the family carried on the occupation of farming and finally died, George Corliss and his son and grandson by a very strange coincidence, meeting death while seated in the same chair. The grandfather of Mr. Corliss, already mentioned, Captain John Corliss, as he was called, served with distinction in the Revolution and some years later, sometime in the early nineties, removed to the town of Easton, Washington county, N. Y. The depreciation of the currency following the Revolution made a great difference in his fortune and that which followed the War of 1812 proved another blow, but he and his sons were extremely energetic and enterprising and their fortunes were recouped. His wife was Lydia Haynes, of Haverhill, and they had eleven children, of whom Hiram, the father of Mr. Corliss was the youngest. Hiram Corliss was a physician and became a very prominent figure in Easton and the surrounding region, and practiced medicine until he was over eighty years of age. He was three times married, but it was his first wife, Susan (Sheldon) Corliss, who was the mother of the Mr. Corliss of this review.

George Henry Corliss, the second child of Dr. Hiram and Susan (Sheldon) Corliss, was born June 2, 1817, at Easton, N. Y. His educational advantages were decidedly meagre in the first instance, although he afterwards supplemented them, for the district schools of that period, especially in the rural neighborhoods, were anything but adequate. An intelligent mind such as that of Mr. Corliss' did not take long to absorb all they had to offer, and he was but fourteen years of age when he turned from his studies and began his business career. Like so many of the great Americans, Mr. Corliss made this beginning in the general store at Greenwich, as a clerk, and here remained for upwards of three years, a thoughtful, serious lad, with dreams of things beyond his horizon. As he grew older he came to feel more and more the great need for further study and he determined at length to compass this ambition in spite of every obstacle. Accordingly, in 1834, he gave up his position in the store and entered an academy in Castleton, Vt., where he remained the full four years and proved himself a student of intelligence and a scholar of attainments. As yet, however, he had no idea in taking up the line of work in which he was later to become so famous, and with the exception of a youthful exploit in the planning and building of a temporary bridge across Batten Kill, had displayed no talent whatsoever in that direction. And now, upon leaving his studies at the academy, and having attained his majority, instead of turning his thoughts and energies in what would naturally be supposed a congenial direction, he returned to the business he had already attempted, only this time as an independent enterprise, and early in 1838 established a general store of his own at Greenwich, N. Y. For nearly three year he continued in this line with considerable success and actually passed his twenty-fourth birthday without ever having seen the inside of a machine shop. In these years, however, he had begun to come to a more definite knowledge of himself, and his tastes and opinions began to form and crystalize. More and more the mechanical side of every question interested him and he found himself solving mechanical problems and devising mechanical contrivances almost spontaneously. Finally, about 1841, he decided to take up what was so obviously his bent, and in spite of the very uncertain character of the returns which a young and unknown inventor can count upon, gave his whole attention to his new tasks. His work during the better part of the following four years was upon the invention and perfection of a machine for sewing boots, shoes and heavy leather of all kinds. But Mr. Corliss was laboring under the disadvantage that has beset so many young inventors, that of not having sufficient capital to place his device upon the market at the outset, and so it was that, although the machine itself was both ingenious and practical, he abandoned it and turned his attention to other things.

How great a disappointment such seeming failure is, how it operates to discourage in spite of the knowledge that in the essential matter one has succeeded, no one can judge who has not passed through the experience, but Mr. Corliss' courage was not of the kind to fail him for discouragement, and he immediately set to work upon another matter that had long attracted his attention, namely, the improvement of the steam engine. Bur Mr. Corliss possessed a faculty even rarer than courage, and in the matter of material success not less valuable, that is, he was able to persuade his fellows of the thing of which he was himself convinced and so enlist their sympathy and aid. In the year 1844 he came to Providence, R. I., to live, the city which remained his home from that time up to the time of his death, and he there associated with two gentlemen, John Barstow and E. J. Nightingale, who felt so much confidence in his ability that a partnership was formed under the style of Corliss, Nighingale & Company, and for the next four years Mr. Corliss worked indefatigably upon his inventions. In 1848 these were practically complete and he was able to construct and operate an engine which, save for some minor improvements in application and finish, was essentially the famous Corliss engine of later years. Feeling now that the task was consummated and that all that remained was to reap the fruits of his endeavors, Mr. Corliss and his associates began the erection of the works of the Corliss Steam Engine Company on a scale, however, that gave but little indication of their later huge proportions. These works were sufficiently progressed for the production of the new engine by the early months of the year 1849, and on March 10 of that year patents were granted by the United States Government covering the improvements made. The engine was then placed upon the market and from that time until after his death has held a foremost place in the engineering world. In 1856 the Corliss Steam Engine Company was incorporated with Mr. Corliss as president, and his brother, William Corliss, as treasurer. A modest factory at the time of its erection, the Corliss works grew rapidly until, at the time of the founder's death, in 1888, the floor space included in the buildings amounted to about five acres, and over a thousand hands were employed there. The works grew in response to the great increase of the market for these remarkable engines, which in a few years had spread all over this country and reached to Europe. Indeed, Europe eventually became a great purchaser of the Corliss engine and it was copied by the engine builders who placed upon their imitations the name of the American builder.

The first great international triumph of Mr. Corliss, when his success began to be recognized upon something like the scale that it deserved, was at the World's Exposition held at Paris in the year 1867, when he won the highest award that was granted in that department, the first prize in a competition of the one hundred most famous engine builders in the world. The words of J. Scott Russell, the designer and builder of the huge steamship 'Great Eastern', that afterwards laid the Atlantic cable, and who was sent by the English government as one of its commissioners to the exposition, deserve quotation, written by him, as they were, in the report sent by him to his government. Speaking of the valve gear of the Corliss engine Mr. Russell said:

'A mechanism as beautiful as the human hand. It releases or retains its grasp on the feeding valve, and gives a greater or less dose of steam in nice proportion to each varying want. The American engine of Corliss everywhere tells of wise forethought, judicious proportions and execution and exquisite contrivance.'

On January 11, 1870, just one hundred years after Watt had patented his first steam engine, Mr. Corliss was awarded the Rumford medals and it was upon this occasion that Dr. Asa Gray, the resident of the academy that awarded the medals, remarked that 'no invention since Watt's time has so enhanced the efficiency of the steam engine as this for which the Rumford medal is now presented'. In 1872 the State of Rhode Island appointed Mr. Corliss its commissioner to take charge of the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, and he was chosen one of the executive committee appointed to look after the preliminaries. Upon the great task of arranging the exposition, he worked with his usual indefatigable energy and it was his suggestion that the Centennial Board of Finance be organized, a body which had no little to do with the insurance of the financial success of the exhibition. It was also in his own department as engineer that Mr. Corliss contributed largely to the success of the great fair, and it was he that supplied, after the plans of all other competitors proved inadequate, the great fourteen hundred horsepower engine which supplied the power used in Machinery Hall. This engine, unequaled in size at that time, was installed by Mr. Corliss at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars to himself and without additional expenditure to the exposition. The great engine was afterwards used to operate the Pullman Car Works at Chicago. The Corliss Company supplied the United States Government with machinery during the Civil War. When the 'Monitor' was being constructed it was found that a large ring must be made, upon which the turret of the 'Monitor' could revolve, and the Corliss Engine Works was found to be one of the very few plants in the country that had the necessary machinery large enough to 'turn' up the large ring. When Mr. Corliss found out what the work was for, he put aside other work, worked his plant day and night to get this important ring completed, which was done on time, sent to New York, placed on the 'Monitor' and the 'Monitor' was thereby enabled to go forth and meet the 'Merrimac' in that historical naval fight. Mr. Corliss always took pride in the fact that he was in no small measure responsible for the successful outcome of that historic fight.

The practice, already noticed among some European manufacturers, of imitating the Corliss engine in their own shops and then placing the name on them led them to a remarkable and somewhat amusing event which redounded greatly to his honor. This was the award to Mr. Corliss of the Grand Diploma of Honor by the Vienna Exposition at Vienna in 1873, although he was not even an exhibitor. This surprising action was explained by the fact that the European manufacturers above mentioned, exhibited their engines with the Corliss name upon them, and displayed so great a superiority over all their competitors that the authorities held it to be fitting that the original designer should get the benefit of genius. Another honor, perhaps the greatest of all done to Mr. Corliss, was the conferring upon him by the Institute of France by public proclamation, March 10, 1879, of the Montyon prize for the year 1878, the most coveted prize for mechanical achievement awarded in Europe. He received this honor by a peculiar coincidence, on the thirtieth anniversary of the granting of his first patent.

Although it might be well supposed that the demands made upon his time and energies by the inventive work, the superintendence of the great industrial works, and the business with every part of the world would have been so exacting as to have precluded the possibility of Mr. Corliss taking part in any other activity, yet, as a matter of fact, he was keenly alive to everything that was going on in his adopted city and State and took a leading part in many movements undertaken there. Especially was this true in the case of politics in which he was a leader in the Republican party, of the principles and policies of which he was a strong supporter. He was elected three consecutive times to the Rhode Island General Assembly as the Representative from North Providence, his term of service including the three years 1868-69-70. In 1876 he was chosen presidential elector, casting his vote for President Hayes. In the matter of his religious belief he was a Congregationalist, and attended the Charles Street Church in Providence from the time of its organization. He was keenly interested in the cause of religion and gave liberally both to his own and to other churches.

Beyond doubt the service done by Mr. Corliss for the material advancement of his fellows was a great one; for the material advancement directly, and indirectly for the intellectual and spiritual advancement, for all material progress reacts upon the mind and spirit particularly such as tend to bring the ends of the earth into communication and teach strange people tolerance first, and then love for each other. And truly there are few of the devices of men that have done more to bring this about than the steam engine. Those men, therefore, who have labored at the perfection of this and the other wonderful contrivances of the great scientific epoch of history, may certainly lay claim to much of the credit for the growth of sympathy and understanding among people that has taken place during the same period and of these Mr. Corliss deserves to stand high in our regard. Of him a local publication said, immediately after his death, that:

'The community loses one of its master minds and a man who has done more for the development of the steam engine than anyone who has yet lived in the country. His fame was world-wide and his years were devoted to the very end to the one purpose of his life. To say that he has left a void which it is impossible to fill is simply to reveal the poverty of language in the presence of an irreparable loss.'

But there was another manner in which the influence of Mr. Corliss was effective, namely, through the subtle medium of personality. No one could look into the well marked, expressive face without feeling himself in the presence of a man of strength, of one who had fought and mastered difficulties which might have overcome another man, or without perceiving the still rarer quality of tolerance and charity for all men. In his relations with his fellows was realized the earthly part of the message to the waiting shepherds of peace and good will toward men. It has already been mentioned that he possessed the power of persuasion, but this was by no means confined to the realm of business, extending rather into every department of life so that others hearkened unto and believed him with an instinctive dependence upon his wisdom and honor.

Mr. Corliss married (first) in January, 1839, Phebe F. Frost, a native of Canterbury, Conn., and a daughter of Daniel and Louisa (Clark) Frost, of that place. Mrs. Corliss died on March 5, 1859, and in December, 1866, he married (second) Emily A. Shaw, of Newburyport, Mass. Mr. Corliss was the father of two children, both of whom were born to his first wife. They are Maria Louisa, now residing in Providence, and George Frost, who makes his home in Nice, France."


George Corliss' brother William was the inventor and manufacturer of the Corliss Safe. This safe was of unusual design and looked like a Bathysphere


  1. Diana Muir, Reflections in Bullough's Pond, University Press of New England, p. 173.
  • History of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, NY: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1920
  • The Providence Plantations for 250 Years, 1886
  • Reflections in Bullough's Pond, Diana Muir, University Press of New England

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