Only a few months before, William R. Leroy of Pennsylvania was a struggling inventor, moonlighting as a stevedore in Santa Monica and in the Fullerton oilfields. Walking to work because even the lowly streetcar fare was a luxury, Leroy labored on his boyhood dream of a “hot air engine,” that once started, ran indefinitely on heated air and electricity that it generated for itself.
Leroy said he left his home in Pennsylvania for Los Angeles because of a mishap with a model of the hot air engine he was building his father’s shop. “One day he went away and I got to experimenting with the engine, using a beer keg for a compressor. The air in the compressor got damp and expanded a good deal more than I thought it would. The keg blew up and knocked the end out of father’s planing mill. Then I had to light out,” Leroy said.
Soon, Leroy’s fortunes changed with the appearance of a mysterious investor named T.E. Nealson or Nealon, who offered $30 million for the machine but specified that his whereabouts be kept a secret. The inventor began selling stock in the Leroy Air Power Manufacturing Co. with an initial offering of 3 cents a share, quickly boosted to 10 cents, mostly purchased by church groups and fraternal organizations.
Using company stock to pay his bills, Leroy furnished his bungalow at 324 N. 4th St in Santa Monica with a pianola, rugs and other items “in the style that usually accompanies a sudden accession of riches,” The Times said.
“This is how she works,” The Times said of the device: “In the first instance, the engine is started by manual labor. Compressed air is one of the ingredients and before the engine is started the pumps are worked until a pressure of 60 pounds is indicated. After that it will take care of itself. With this pressure the engine starts off. Its compressors tamp the air, which is heated by electricity that is generated by discs in motion. These give off arcs or sparks of unknown units of heat. The heat is utilized in expanding and exploding the globules of moisture absorbed by the compressed air as it makes its way through water.
“When the arcing occurs, then the three elements are in combustion as Leroy explains, just as the air cell in the grain of corn when it bursts or as the thunder following the lightning’s flash is but the coming together of the air which had been separated by the electricity in the air. While the invention makes no attempt at harnessing the thunderbolts of the sky, it operates on the same principle, gaining sufficient force from the expansion to operate the engine itself and burden it with considerable load.”
Despite Leroy’s insistence, The Times’ Chicago correspondent was unable to locate T.E. Nealson or the purported working model of the engine. Leroy went along throwing lavish parties for investors, explaining his complicated device (which he angrily insisted was not a perpetual motion machine) as well as the equally complicated financing of the project and his mysterious investor.
Leroy and his associates eventually ended up in court when a feud between two Santa Monica papers, the Journal and the Free Lance, generated a libel suit after the Free Lance accused the Journal of seeking “hush money” to not run further negative stories about the device.
In the end, the mysterious investor never arrived and weary stockholders sent Leroy back East to produce a working model of his machine, never to be heard from again.
The Times runs statistics on column inches of advertising (21 inches per column) for the third week of May:
The Times: 1,212
The Examiner: 716
The Express: 500
The Herald: 298
The Record: 276
The News: 174
Sunday circulation for The Times is 65,500.