Our December Traditions
By Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.
The Met Section’s Traditions are to commemorate Mechanical Engineering History and Heritage and we habitually do this at our annual December Meeting. This year’s meeting was held Thursday, December 15th, 2005 at the Ukrainian Restaurant in the East Village, and featured our eminent Historian Conrad Milster, the chief engineer of the Pratt Institute Power Plant, a mechanical engineering historical landmark. Mr. Milster presented a beautiful colored slide presentation that duly honored our distinguished history and heritage.
Mr. Milster opened his remarks by noting that the preservation of Technical landmarks is much further advanced in Europe than in the United States. Structural Remnants of the Roman Empire are still found commonly all over Europe. For example, in Bath, England, Portions of the old Hygienic and Irrigation water system still exist and are operative. 2000 years ago the Romans conveyed water through lead piping and used water and wind power to energize facilities such paper mills and grain grinders. Wood was the basic architectural material while stone and mortar the basic structural materials.
The middle ages illustrated progress in significant construction of the Cathedrals which dot the European landscape. The Dutch Pioneered land reclamation from the sea and advances in Wind Power. In Holland today a windmill powered water pumping station built in 1738 is still operating. Although Iron and Steel were widely used from weapons production at this time, their widespread use for civilian and commercial purposes did not occur until the Industrial Revolution. The first commercially successful Steam Engine was built in England in 1780 by James Watt, and relied Heavily on the skill and strength of the individual artisan and worker. European preservation of Industrial Revolution Landmarks can take several forms. They can be preserved at their original site or relocated. They can be powered by steam, they can be motor driven, or they can be static, and protected behind a glass case for preservation. A typical example is a steam powered hoisting machine built in 1838 in England, which is still operative, but driven by an electric motor. Another example is a water pumping station, steam powered, at the San Souci Palace in Potsdam, Germany, built in 1848, renovated in 1890 and still intact after the surrounding destruction of two world wars.
Characteristic of preserved industrial revolution machinery is their Hand-Forged and beautifully finished parts, many of which are decorated in the baroque and/or Moorish styles, featuring elaborate ornamentation, scrolls and curves. Typical example of this preservation is the German paddle wheel river steamer “Diesbau” first commissioned in 1888 and using an oscillating steam engine with two cylinders, triple expansion, operating at 25 psi, and built in 1855. This Steamer traveled on the Elbe River in East Germany and served the city of Dresden, rebuilt by the East German government after World War II. After the Berlin wall came down and the East German government collapsed, this steamer fell into decay and disuse. The newly unified German government then stepped in, revitalized the vessel, and converted it from coal to oil operation.
Building preservation is also common throughout Europe, particularly in war-damaged cities. Berlin, for example, almost totally destroyed in World War II, is the site of the “Kaiserkirche” which emerged from the war partially demolished. It was decided to partially restore this First World War era structure and leave the rest of the structure in ruins as a reminder of the horrors of war. Basically the church lobby and steeple have been repaired with column restoration featuring limestone and terra cotta repairs, along with the rebuilt church organ. Another notable church, completely demolished in the enormous bombing raid on Dresden in late World War II, consisted only in piles of rubble. The restoration efforts featured the cataloging of each usable stone in a computer and rebuilding the structure in accordance with the original plans. This “Fravenkirche” was rededicated in early 2005.
Great Britain has specialized in factory preservation. The Queen Street textile mill currently operates as a museum but will manufacture specialty textiles to order. The mill is powered by a compound corliss steam engine more than one hundred years old. Power is transmitted directly from the engine to the looms through an extensive series of gears, pulleys, belts and counter shafts. This drive system generates an enormous amount of noise forcing the loom operators to learn how to read lips to communicate when working.
The Victorian age sewage pumping plant in Leicester, England was built in 1890, is still functional, and is widely renowned for its beautiful design and sumptuous decoration, particularly on its steam engine. Many factories featured narrow gauge railways to transport equipment and supplies internally and externally connected to standard gauge railways offering transport throughout the country. Steam powered railways also have been preserved in England. One notable line between Hayesworth and Oakworth dates from 1876 and is maintained in Victorian age spender complete with gas lighting in stations, manually operated semaphore signals, and crossing guards for road intersections emphasizing foolproof safety provisions.
In continental Europe electrically powered streetcars and trolleys are still common, even in the older cities with narrow streets where automobiles and motor scooters are prohibited. Typical of these systems is the integrated network of formely independent lines in Potsdam Germany, where Electronic displays of vehicle schedules, running times, and waiting intervals before next arrivals have been functioning for at least 15 years. Some of these streetcar systems have been in service continually since before the First World War, and featuring the original equipment beautifully maintained for more than 80 years.
Other significant preservation efforts in Europe are in the area of amusement parks, merry-go-rounds (usually with organ accompaniment), and street gurneys with hand-operated music boxes. In Holland extensive efforts are made to preserve steam-powered vessels, particularly the boats. In fact, there are periodic regattas where dozens of these vessels come together and celebrate the primacy of the steam engine in the history of industrial development and sea going transportation. England has specialized in the preservation of steam-powered buses, cars and trucks including ½ and ¼ scale working models of these vehicles.
All of these preservation efforts are a tribute to the history and heritage of Mechanical Engineering and they deserve our respect and admiration. Foremost among the leaders of these preservation efforts is our guest speaker, Conrad Milster. Met Section extends sincere gratitude for his continuing efforts and wishes him multiple successes in the future.