Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, June 10, 2017

100 Years Ago: The Birth of the Liberty Engine

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By Stephen Miller

The New Willard Hotel of Washington, DC, was the site of some famous events and important visitors. Among the lesser-known was the design of the USA Standardized Aircraft Engine, better known as the Liberty engine.

The U.S. aircraft industry was woefully unprepared after America's entrance into WW I in April 1917. Engine manufacturers, mostly of the automobile companies, agreed to build a standard engine which would maximize their resources and avoid duplication of effort. On 30 May 1917 Elbert J. Hall & Jesse G. Vincent took up residence in Suite 201 of the New Willard Hotel to design the engine. Initial concepts called for a modular design of 4, 6, 8, or 12 cylinders; the 12-cylinder, 443 hp variant became the most widely produced. I once attempted to visit Suite 201 at the hotel to see if any historical marker was present but was denied access by the hotel security since I was not visiting a specific person.

The Liberty Engine

Few would question the Liberty engine was the most significant aeronautical contribution of the USA to the First World War. Several American car companies produced 20,478 Liberty engines for U.S. Air Service use during the war. It saw operational service in the war, adapted for the de Havilland DH-4 and French Bréguet 14 bombers and Curtiss Flying Boats. Post-WW I the Liberty was used in several aircraft designs as well as for boats and tanks.

A DH-4 Equipped with a Liberty Engine

Photos from the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, and the author's collection.


  1. The Smithsonian in DC has one on static display that myself being an engine person quite impressed me. It is larger than the scale of this photo portrays, on seeing it my thoughts were, wow this big engine went into these early aircraft. I understand it was used extensively as a mainstay aircraft engine for many years. In fact that well publicized long duration US Army flight in the 1920s was with aircraft equipped with this engine. Parnelli Jones

    1. A large liquid cooled engine needing a large radiator (heat exchanger) made this pretty large overall. Reliable though and around for quite some time.

    2. nice to hear from a true engine guy!

  2. My late Grandfather' was a rum Runner on the west coast of Vancouver BC island...he actually bought a 37 ft cigarette boat with a liberty engine... apparently his boat would go 50 mph.... AWESOME HISTORY 👍👍😄😄🇨🇦🇨🇦