Sunday, November 18, 2012

How To Build a Steam Locomotive

It seems that manufacturing and craftsmanship are reported in some quarters to be disappearing from the the scene. It is true that many manufacturing jobs have been automated.  But beyond automation, some crafts and some products seem to be just plain extinct. The steam locomotive falls into this category.  There are certainly a few old locomotives puffing around railroad museums and there are even a few Class A steam locomotives, like the Union Pacific's No. 844 , still operational enough to remind us of why past generations had a love affair with the steam locomotive.

But how do you build such a machine? Virtually every locomotive was a custom made machine.  It took many skilled engineers and craftsman to create the design and fabricate the components. Parts were made in foundries or forges from molten iron and steel. Holes and surfaces were shaped to exacting tolerances on vertical mills, shapers, and lathes. Assembly was done in giant erection shops with huge overhead cranes. It was an impressive operation.

I recently came across a film clip on YouTube that shows what went into building a steam locomotive in 1937. The setting is England but the operations were the same everywhere.  In the video, you can see a very interesting combination of controlled force and high craftsmanship. In every step you see skilled people working together to build a complex machine. I don't want to read too much into this but I would hazard a guess that they also felt considerable pride in their work.

But this is not the end of the story. In the early 2000s, a group of railroad buffs decided to build the first steam locomotive to be crafted in England in fifty years. The locomotive, a Peppercorn Class A1 (named for the designer), was rolled out of the Darlington Locomotive Works on August 1, 2008.

I find it encouraging that the skills needed to build this magnificent machine have not disappeared completely. I think the men who worked on Number 6207 seventy years earlier would have been pleased to see their work carried forward.

This is, after all, the very definition of craft - a skill learned through apprenticing to a master. When the chain is broken, that craft is in danger of disappearing. Sometimes, it can be resurrected by relearning the old ways. As an example, I think of another video I saw recently of a man in Wilmington, North Carolina who painstakingly relearned how to make tintype photographs.

American Tintype from Matt Morris Films on Vimeo.

Why resurrect old skills and crafts in the digital age? I think we need them to connect us to our heritage. We need to feel a part of a continuity of technology that spans more than our hyper-connected, online world.  While all things digital now dominate our consciousness, the undeniable presence of our physical technology provides an anchor to the real world. And, ironically, the descriptions for how to build a locomotive or create a tintype are most likely to be archived in digital formats somewhere on the World Wide Web. And so it goes.


I found the video for A Study in Steel on The Old Motor.
I found the video for American Tintype on Open Culture.

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