Stirling's air engine (as it is referred to in early text books) was invented by Reverend Dr. Robert Stirling and patented by him in 1816. It followed earlier attempts at making an air engine and it was probably the first to be put to practical use when in 1818 an engine built by Stirling was employed pumping water in a quarry. When the name became simplified to Stirling engine is not known, but may be as recently as the mid twentieth century when the Philips company began to experiment with working fluids other than air - the instruction book for their MP1002CA (see below) still refers to it as an 'air engine'. The main subject of Stirling's original patent was a heat exchanger which he called the "economiser" for its enhancement of fuel economy in a variety of applications. The patent also described in detail the employment of one form of the economiser in an air engine, in which application it is now commonly known as a regenerator. Subsequent development by Robert Stirling and his brother James, an engineer, resulted in patents for various improved configurations of the original engine, including pressurisation which by 1845 had sufficiently increased the power output for it to successfully drive all the machinery at a Dundee iron foundry.
As well as conserving fuel, the inventors sought to create a safer alternative to the steam engines of the time whose boilers frequently exploded with dire consequences, often including loss of life. However, the need for the Stirling engine to run at a very high temperature to maximize power and efficiency exposed limitations in the materials of the day and the few engines which were built in those early years had rather short and troublesome lives. In particular, 'hot end' failures occurred more frequently than could be tolerated, albeit with far less disastrous results than a steam boiler explosion.
Though it ultimately failed as a competitor to the steam engine in the field of industrial scale prime movers, during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries smaller engines of the Stirling/hot air type (the boundary between the two is often blurred as in many the regenerator is of dubious efficiency or omitted altogether) were produced in large numbers, finding applications wherever a reliable source of low to medium power was required, most commonly perhaps for raising water. These generally operated at lower temperatures so as not to tax available materials and thus tended to be rather inefficient, their major selling point being that in contrast to a steam engine, they could be operated safely by anybody capable of managing the fire in a domestic range. As the century wore on, this role was eventually usurped by the electric motor and small internal combustion engines and by the late 1930s the Stirling engine was a largely forgotten scientific curiosity represented only by toys and a few small ventilating fans.
At this time Philips, the large Dutch electrical and electronic manufacturer, was seeking to expand the market for its radio sets into areas where mains electricity was unknown and the supply of short-lived batteries uncertain. Philips’ management decided that what was needed was a low-powered portable generator and tasked a group of engineers at the company research lab (the Nat. Lab) in Eindhoven to investigate the practicalities. Reviewing various prime movers old and new, each was rejected for one reason or another until the Stirling engine was considered. Inherently quiet and capable of running from any heat source (common lamp oil “cheap and available everywhere” was favoured), it seemed to offer real possibilities. Encouraged by their first experimental engine, which produced 16 watts of shaft power from a bore and stroke of 30x25mm, a development program was set in motion.
Remarkably, this work continued throughout World War II and by the late 1940s they had an engine – the Type 10 – which was sufficiently developed to be handed over to Philips’ subsidiary Johan de Witt in Dordrecht to be ‘productionised’ and incorporated into a generator set as originally planned. The set progressed through three prototypes (102A, B, and C), with the production version, rated at 200 watts electrical output from a bore and stroke of 55x27 mm, being designated MP1002CA (affectionately known as the 'Bungalow set'). Production of an initial batch began in 1951, but it became clear that they could not be made at a price that the market would support, besides which the advent of transistor radios with their much lower power requirements meant that the whole raison d'ętre for the set was fast disappearing. Though the MP1002CA may have been a dead end, it represents the start of the modern age of Stirling engine development.
Philips went on to develop the Stirling engine for a wide variety of applications including vehicles, but only ever achieved any commercial success with the 'reversed Stirling engine' cryocooler. They did however take out a large number of patents and amass a wealth of information relating to Stirling engine technology, which was later licensed to other companies.