Stephenson valve gear

Stephenson valve gear

The Stephenson valve gear or Stephenson link or shifting link [Snell, J B (1971). Mechanical Engineering: Railways, Longman & Co, London] is a simple design of valve gear that was widely used throughout the world for all kinds of steam engine. It was patented by George Stephenson but was actually invented by his employees.

Historical background

During the 1830s the most popular valve drive for locomotives was known as "gab motion" in the U.K. and" V-hook motion" in the U.S.A [ White, John H. Jr. (1968): A History of the American locomotive, its development: 1830-1880; Dover republication of 1979, ISBN 0-486-23818-0, original published by the John Hopkins Press.] . The gab motion incorporated two sets of eccentrics and rods for each cylinder; one eccentric was set to give forward and the other backwards motion to the engine and one or the other could accordingly engage with a pin driving the distribution valve by means of the gabs: - vee-shaped ends to the eccentric rods supposed to catch the rocker driving the valve rod whatever its position. It was a clumsy mechanism difficult to operate that moreover only gave fixed valve events. admission steam earlier in the stroke and using a smaller amount steam expansively in the cylinder, using its own energy rather than continuing to draw from the boiler. It became the practice to start the engine or climb gradients at long cutoff, usually about 70-80% maximum of the power stroke and to shorten the cutoff as momentum was gained in order to benefit from the economy of expansive working and the effect of increased lead and higher compression at the end of each strike. This process was popularly known as "linking up" or "“notching up”", the latter because the reversing lever could be held in a precise positions by means of a catch on the lever engaging notches in a quadrant; the term stuck even after the introduction of the screw reverser. A further intrinsic advantage of the Stephenson gear not found in most other types, was variable lead. Depending on how the the gear was laid out, it was possible to considerably reduce compression and back pressure at the end of each piston stroke when working at low speed in full gear; once again as momentum was gained and cutoff shortened, so lead was automatically advanced and compression increased, cushioning the piston at the end of each stroke and heating the remaining trapped steam in order to avoid temperature drop in the fresh charge of incoming admission steam.

American locomotives universally employed inside Stephenson valve gear placed between the frames until around 1900 when it quickly gave way to outside Walschaerts motion. In Europe Stephenson gear could be placed either outside the driving wheels and driven by either eccentrics or return cranks, or else between the frames driven from the axle through eccentrics, as was mostly the case in Britain.


Abner Doble [Walton J.N. (1965-74) Doble Steam Cars, Buses, Lorries, and Railcars . "Light Steam Power" Isle of Man, UK; p. 196.] considered Stephenson valve gear: "(...) the most universally suitable valve gear of all, for it can be worked out for a long engine structure or a short one. It can be a very simple valve gear and still be very accurate, but its great advantage is that its accuracy is self-contained, for the exact relationship between its points of support (eccentrics on shaft, valve crosshead, and link hanger arm) have but little effect on the motion of the valve. Its use on engines in which all the cylinders lie in one plane, represents, in the belief of the writer, the best choice." Another benefit of the Stephenson gear, intrinsic to the system, is variable lead: usually zero in full gear and increasing as cutoff is shortened.

Stephenson valve gear was a convenient arrangement for any engine that needed to reverse and was widely applied to railway locomotives, traction engines, steam car engines and to stationary engines that needed to reverse, such as rolling-mill engines. It was used on the overwhelming majority of marine engines.

Details of the gear differ principally in the arrangement of the expansion link. In early locomotive practice the eccentric rod ends were pivoted at the ends of the link, while in marine engines the eccentric rod pivots were set behind the link slot (or below on a vertical engine). These became known respectively as the 'locomotive link' and the 'launch link'. The launch link superseded the locomotive type as it allows more direct linear drive to the piston rod in full gear and permits a longer valve travel within a given space by reducing the size of eccentric required for a given travel. Launch-type links were pretty well universal for American locomotives right from the 1850s, but in Europe, although occurring as early as 1846, they did not become widespread until around 1900. Larger marine engines generally used the bulkier and more expensive marine double-bar link, which has greater wearing surfaces and which improved valve events by minimising geometric compromises inherent in the launch link.


As a harmonic valve gear, the Stephenson arrangement may be considered as optimum. Nevertheless the fact the link needed to be bodily displaced in order to reverse meant that it required considerable vertical clearance. At the time of its introduction, it was deemed important in the locomotive world to keep the centre of gravity, and therefore the boiler centre line as low as possible. Because valve gears in Britain were generally placed between the frames beneath the boiler, the extremely cramped conditions made the valve gear inaccessible for servicing. Also reversing could be a strenuous occupation as it entailed lifting the weight of the link plus eccentric rod ends. In order to address these problems two main variants were developed :

Gooch valve gear

In the Gooch valve gear the reversing and cut-off functions were achieved by raising or lowering a radius rod which connected the valve-rod to a "stationary" link pivoting around a fixed point. The advantages sought were reduced height for the gear and lighter action as the reversing lever was only required to lift the weight of the radius rod. This meant that the link was convex (in relation to the eccentrics) instead of concave. Gooch valve gear had the disadvantage of angularity between the valve spindle and the eccentric rod in full gear, whereas the best forms of the Stephenson gear, the thrust was in a straight line. The Gooch gear gave constant lead at whatever cutoff. This was observed to be a disadvantage when similar locomotives fitted with either Gooch or Stephenson gear were compared in service [Holcroft, Harold (1957). An outline of Great Western locomotive practice, 1837-1947; Locomotive Publishing Co Ltd, London, U.K. p.20.] Gooch gear was never popular in Britain except with one or two engineers down to the 1860s, but it was quite common in France.

Allan straight link valve gear

The Allan straight link valve gear (invented by Alexander Allan in 1855) combined the features of the Stephenson and Gooch gears. The reversing and cut-off functions were achieved by simultaneously raising the radius rod and lowering the link, or vice-versa. As with the Gooch gear this saved space but the Allen gear gave performance closer to that of the Stephenson. Moreover the straight expansion link simplified manufacture. Once again the Allan gear was not often used in the U.K. but fairly common on the Continent.


External links

* [] of standard Stephenson valve gear.

* [ Trouble shooting] Stephenson valve gear, with diagrams.

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