Two-stroke engines often have a high power-to-weight ratio, power being available in a narrow range of rotational speeds called the "power band". Compared to four-stroke engines, two-stroke engines have a greatly reduced number of moving parts, and so can be more compact and significantly lighter.
The first commercial two-stroke engine involving in-cylinder compression is attributed to Scottish engineer Dugald Clerk, who patented his design in 1881. However, unlike most later two-stroke engines, his had a separate charging cylinder. The crankcase-scavenged engine, employing the area below the piston as a charging pump, is generally credited to Englishman Joseph Day. The first truly practical two-stroke engine is attributed to Yorkshireman Alfred Angas Scott, who started producing twin-cylinder water-cooled motorcycles in 1908.
Gasoline (spark ignition) versions are particularly useful in lightweight or portable applications such as chainsaws and motorcycles. However, when weight and size are not an issue, the cycle's potential for high thermodynamic efficiency makes it ideal for diesel compression ignition engines operating in large, weight-insensitive applications, such as marine propulsion, railway locomotives and electricity generation. In a two-stroke engine, the heat transfer from the engine to the cooling system is less than in a four-stroke, which means that two-stroke engines can be more efficient.
Crankcase-compression two-stroke engines, such as common small gasoline-powered engines, create more exhaust emissions than four-stroke engines of comparable power output because their two-stroke oil (petroil) lubrication mixture is also burned in the engine, due to the engine's total-loss oiling system, and because the combined opening time of the intake and exhaust valves in some 2-stroke designs can allow some amount of unburned fuel vapors to exit in the exhaust stream.
Two-stroke petrol engines are preferred when mechanical simplicity, light weight, and high power-to-weight ratio are design priorities. With the traditional lubrication technique of mixing oil into the fuel, they also have the advantage of working in any orientation, as there is no oil reservoir dependent on gravity; this is an essential property for hand-held power tools such as chainsaws.