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‘Naturally children idolized the engineer,’ says Dr.
Reynold M. Wik in his 1980 IMA article, ‘Farm Steam Engineers:
Pioneers in Rural America’ (page 2 in reprint). So did adults,
for, when steam was king, the engineers were knights upholding a
high standard deserving homage. Reliving those halcyon years when
steam ruled the threshing season, Wik explains, ‘These
engineers took pride in their ability for they were usually the
only men in a rural community capable of operating an engine.’
(Note there were, and are, women engineers.) That the operators of
steam engines attracted ‘special attention,’ as Wik puts
it, comes as no surprise. Today, at the reunions and shows held
throughout the country, spectators admire the derring-do of the
engineers at the reins of powerful, often gigantic ‘metal
beasts.’ Like their counterparts of yesteryear, modern-day
engineers exhibit extraordinary skills.
They must. A steam engine is no simple toy but a mind-boggling
assemblage of intricate working parts. The heedful engineer has to
keep a constant and vigilant eye on dauntingly complicated systems.
The operator of a steam traction engine, for example, must
Test the safety valve each morning and the try cocks more
Test the water gauge, continuously verify that at least two
water pumps are doing their job, and work the magic of starting an
Know how and when to fire and how not to burn out the
Test the steam gauge and realize how much pressure to carry
Balance the draft through judicious application of the blower,
adjustment of the exhaust nozzle, and opening and closing the
Check numerous boxes and journals constantly and ensure proper
lubrication through a variety of oiling apparatuses.
Understand the art of taking up wear while retaining
‘good’ lost motion.
Control the governor efficiently.
Deftly orchestrate the uses of the throttle, the reversing
lever, and the clutch.
Wisely handle the traction engine on the road, especially in
Distinguish between a safe bridge and a death trap.
Set the engine for the most effective belting.
Figure the ratios of pulleys.
Comprehend the mechanics of the eccentric(s) and dozens of other
Understand the valve mechanism so as to ensure the best
arrangement of lead, admission, cut-off, compression, and
Know how to pack joints and how to bead flues.
Prevent condensing water from collecting in the cylinder and
overcome such problems as foaming and priming.
Clean the boiler routinely and understand how to remove sediment
from many points within the boiler and engine.
Constantly check on the condition of, and scrape scale from, the
Test the boiler periodically.
And accomplish these tasks (and many more) without getting
burned, being scalded, or catching a hand or a foot in the gears!
No wonder lesser mortals always have admired the engineers, whose
knowledge is great, whose responsibilities are massive!
TheCase Steam Engine Manual of long ago one of the
slimmest handbooks of the steam era contains over 150 sections,
each representing complex matters which the engineer had to master
and to put into practice almost every day. To cover what the
engineer needed to know, other published volumes required up to 900
These voices of the past speak not only about the knowledge
which the operator of a steam engine had to acquire but also about
the remarkable qualities of the engineer. The colorful and
inimitable prose style of James H. Maggard is as fresh now as when
he named the first and foremost trait of a worthy engineerprudence.
In his book Rough and Tumble Engineering, Maggard asserts,
‘You no doubt have made up your mind by this time that I have
no use for a careless engineer, and let me add right here, that if
you are inclined to be careless or forgetful (they both mean the
same thing), you are a mighty poor risk for an insurance
company.’ Maggard insists on ‘an engineer who knows when
his safety valve is in good shape and who knows when he has plenty
of water…’ In Maggard’s day, explosions did result from
poor workmanship, but most boiler detonations could be blamed on
When they occurred, such catastrophes brought hell to earth.
Accounts of boiler explosions portray horrific destruction, often
death. Citing the Ashland Press of July 1901, Marvin McKinley in
Wheels of Farm Progress (1980) quotes:
The boiler of Ora Emmens’ threshing engine blew up Monday
forenoon with marvelous results . . . Jay Jackson had charge of the
The boiler had been leaking and it was brought to Mohn’s
shop in town last Saturday. Mohn put a plug in it and pronounced it
safe. About eight o’clock Monday morning Jackson noticed that
the boiler was leaking slightly. He … stepped upon the footboard
of the engine, signalled a stop with the whistle, reversed the
lever and had just stooped down to scrape out the fire when the
The noise was deafening and the effect awful. A huge cloud of
dirt and steam enveloped everything. With a tremendous force the
huge engine and boiler . . . was lifted 20 feet from where it stood
while parts were scattered everywhere. Jackson was hurled far and
away to the southwest alighting in the field where clover had been
cut. The distance was afterward measured and found to be 142 feet!
His escape from death . . . was wonderful …
Jackson may have made two mistakes and may have been about to
err a third timeas will become apparent later; for now, suffice to
say that, typically, the shrapnel and scalding water from such
cataclysmic events shot 150 feet in every direction. The twisted
wreckage of a boiler sometimes would be discovered to have traced a
trajectory of several hundred feet from the point of explosion,
according to Cornell professor Dr. R. H. Thurston, who wrote the
late-nineteenth-century book on this morbid subject,
Steam-Boiler Explosions in Theory and in Practice.
Then as now, the engineer had at hand the source of awesome
power and potential disaster. Writing in the early 1900s, Professor
P. S. Rose (in Steam Engine Guide) attested, ‘The enormous
amount of energy in steam and heated water under pressure is hard
to comprehend. Even after seeing the figures they are so large that
the mind scarcely grasps their meaning.’ Rose computes that a
25 HP agricultural engine with a direct-flue boiler contains
‘39,616,703.3 foot pounds of energy stored within the walls of
the boiler . . . which would be set free to do destructive work in
case of an explosion.’ To try to make such a figure
comprehensible, Rose draws an analogy, stipulating that such force
could hurl a one-pound rifle ball 7,500 miles. He adds that, were
the rupture to form a vent in exactly the right spot, the
eleven-ton engine ‘would leave the earth with a velocity of
384.2 feet per second and rise to a height of 1,735 feet, almost
one-third of a mile ‘the same distance which Thurston
mathematically determines. Only a person of uncommon
characteristics could or should be in charge of such a fearsome
Unlike present-day textbooks (which remain silent on the
subject), the manuals for agricultural engineers of the late 1800s
and the early 1900s, as well as the tomes for college students of
mechanical engineering, addressed the questions of character and
lifestyle. These authorities of an earlier generation hoped to
instill in their readers particular values requisite in a person
wielding an engineer’s enormous responsibilities. Rose follows
Some men through ignorance, and others through long experience,
acquire a certain contempt for the power of steam. They do not
hesitate to run any sort of an engine or to carry any pressure that
suits their fancy. The gauge may be wrong or the pop valve may be
wrong or the water be low, but these men have no fear because they
do not realize the risk they are taking. Such men and those that
work with them are in constant danger, for steam is no respecter of
persons. It is a good servant or a merciless destroyer, depending
upon how it is handled.
Maggard tells a story about an audacious engineer on the order
of Rose’s description:
Some time ago [I] was standing near a traction engine, when the
engineer, (I guess I must call him that) asked me to stay with the
engine a few minutes. I consented. After he had been gone a short
time I thought I would look after the water. It showed about two
inches in the glass, which was all right, but as I have advised
you, I proposed to know that it was there and thought I would prove
it by trying the cocks. But on attempting to try them I found them
limed up solid. Had I been hunting an engineer, that fellow would
not have secured the job . .. Shortly after this the fellow who was
helping the engine run (I guess I will put it that way) came back.
I asked him what the trouble was with his try cocks. He said,
‘Oh, I don’t bother with them.’ I asked him what he
would do if his glass should break. His reply was, ‘Oh, that
Maggard next cautions readers that the water glass or gauge can
fool a person into thinking the boiler has enough water when it has
not; he then admonishes his audience to check the try cocks and the
water gauge daily. Finally, Maggard rightfully vilifies careless
engineers like the one he encountered. A circumspectand, therefore,
wise engineer has a healthy appreciation for the fact that, if the
boiler is carrying, say, 125 pounds of steam pressure per square
inch, each and every square inch of the shell is feeling at least
that force. The square inches add up fast in the boiler of a
traction engine, especially the mammoth variety common in the early
twentieth century. The flue-sheets, likewise, are experiencing a
humbling force, as are the crown-sheet (in a locomotive-styled
boiler), the main flue (in a return-flue boiler), and any other
parts attempting to resist the pressure. Even though the metal of
certain boilers may have been designed to bear between 55,000 and
60,000 pounds (the tensile strength), that strength is not too much
to match the dynamic and radically varying energies at work within
the shell, which is tapped with many holes for pipe-fittings, the
steam dome, bolts, and rivets. The presence of sediment and scale
causes uneven distribution of temperature; the pressures on
stay-bolts seldom are uniform; and the difference in heat between
the steam portion of the boiler and the lower portion, where the
temperature varies from that of the feed water to the maximum the
water eventually attains, creates stresses and strains. Wary
engineers respect such sobering realities.
In A Manual of Steam Boilers: Their Design,
Construction, and Operation (first edition in 1888, seventh in
1904), Thurston warns:
Ordinary oxidation . . . produces in many cases rapid
deterioration; the constant and often great changes of temperature
due to not only the ordinary working boiler, but also at times to
overheating of parts exposed to flame, may produce still more
formidable effects, and even the continual changing of form caused
by variations both of pressure and temperature, may give rise to
important losses of ductility, and sometimes of strength. Steel is
especially liable, if too hard, to loss of quality and dangerous
injury by cracking, in consequence of such action.
The Deterioration of Boilers with age and with use is in nearly
all cases due to modification of quality of metal and to reduction
of section of parts exposed to stress and strain. This
deterioration is certain to occur to a greater or less extent; but
its rate is usually indeterminate, and it consequently happens
that, except by actual inspection and test, it is impossible to
know, at any time after a boiler is built and set in operation,
just what is its strength and whether it is safe.
As Thurston and so many of yesteryear’s authors contend, the
engineer must respect the precariousness of operating a steam
After all, in the instant of an explosion, tremendous processes
wreak vengeance on the careless engineer. With as little as 60
pounds of pressure per square inch, a mere cubic foot of water in
the boiler is equivalent to one pound of gunpowder, according to
George Biddle, quoted in Thurston’s work on boilers. At the
moment of the explosion, the steam rushes through the rupture; the
water, vexed at the sudden dynamic changes in compression, slams
like a tidal wave against the vent; extensive rents violently tear
through adjacent areas of the boiler; much of the water is
simultaneously flashing into new steam with force of its own; and
it is too late to stand back or to run away. The deafening report
vies with that of a battery of artillery. Thurston states that the
majority of such catastrophes could be attributed to ‘the utter
recklessness of the designer, the builder, or the attendants
intrusted with [the] management [of the engine]’ more often
than not the latter group.
Echoing Maggard, Rose, and others, Thurston urges that the
‘person in direct charge of the boiler’ be ‘experienced
and trust worthy’as well as ‘intelligent, of good
judgement, ready and prompt in emergencies, and absolutely reliable
at all times.’ Thurston explains:
The care demanded, in ordinary working, to keep a full supply of
water, to preserve the fires in their most effective condition, to
keep an even steam-pressure, an ample and unintermittent supply of
steam, is such as tries the best of men; but, added to this, it is
imperative that the responsible man in charge of boilers have that
presence of mind and readiness in action and promptness in
expedients, in time of accident or of emergency, which is hardly
less necessary than on the battlefield.
A tall order which engineers continue to fulfill!
Matthias N. Forney, in Catechism of the Locomotive
(1897), recommends how an upstanding engineer should live,
contending that such a professional should practice ‘frequent
bathing and cleansing of the skin’ and ‘the wearing of a
woolen undershirtat all seasons.’ Maggard agrees that the
engineer ‘ought to take some pride’ in personal appearance.
‘An engineer who keeps himself as clean as he can, keeps his
engine as clean as he can; and while a good engineer does not
always have a clean engine, a clean engine always has a good
engineer,’ says Maggard.
Like so many of the early experts on steam power, Forney
prescribes the engineer’s lifestyle:
. . . the engineer should try to strengthen himself by regular,
temperate living, and eating abundant nourishing food. The common
use of strong drinks, which undermines the mental and physical
strength of men, should be avoided by a person occupying the
exhaustive and responsible position of (an engineer).
… In order to save themselves from great injuries, engineers
should . . . always act with the greatest caution, and never rush
carelessly into danger. They should never adopt the principle of
foolhardy and thoughtless people, who by the consciousness of
continual danger fall into the habit of carelessly ‘trusting to
their luck,’ etc. On the contrary, they should always face the
danger with their eyes open and with the greatest
conscientiousness. Many try to show great courage by scouring the
danger, and some such even wish to meet a little in order to be
able to show that they are not afraid. These should bear in mind
that they have a great responsibility laid upon them, and that it
is not alone their own well-being or life which is at stake in case
of any mishap, but that by their careless behavior they may wound
or kill the helpless people who are committed to their care, cause
incalculable misery by robbing families of their sole support and
of their children, and bring great sorrow and mourning to their
fellow men. The thought of the curse and the despair of the
survivors may give sleepless hours even to [an engineer] who knows
himself to have been without any fault regarding an accident; how
much more must it be with him who cannot give himself this
Forney then invokes the name of Hippocrates to recommend that
engineers live where there is plenty of ‘pure air, pure water,
and a pure soil.’ He even urges regular airing out of the house
and using ‘the frying pan as little as possible; greasy food is
very unwholesome.’ Forney’s characteristics of the ideal
engineer include: health, strength, exactness in fulfilling duties,
cheerful disposition, faithfulness, frankness, honesty,
self-possession, and respect for others. Maggard adds the quality
of silence: ‘You will find a poor engineer very willing to
talk. This is bad habit number one. He cannot talk and have his
mind on his work.’
With these bygone authors’ injunctions resonating in the
books they bestowed on their generation, it readily understood why
the many excellent engineers of that era were accorded a status
resembling that of the knights of yore; most of them aspired to
virtuous qualities which more fallible beings failed to attain. For
their own safety and that of others in proximity, they paid close
attention to their engines and followed the advice of experts, such
as William Boss, who wrote The Health Book for Threshermen
In case the water has got below the tubes or crown sheet in a
boiler, cover the fire immediately with ashes or any earth that may
be at hand. If nothing else is handy, use fresh coal. Then draw it
out as soon as it can be done without increasing the heat. Neither
turn on the feed water, start or stop the engine, nor lift the
safety valve, until the fire is out and the boiler is cooled down.
After the boiler is cooled sufficiently, it should be examined to
see if the tubes and sheets are injured, before firing up again. As
long as there is water over the tubes or crown sheet, it is safe to
put in more water; but it is never safe to put in water after it
gets below the tubes or crown sheet.
The Power Catechism (1897) could have answered Jay
Jackson’s questions, had Jackson had the luxury of time to
think during the 1901 incident which launched him toward the clover
Q. 165What would you do in case of low water?
A.Cover the fire with green coal or damp ashes, partially close
the ash-pit doors, leave the furnace door open, and allow the
furnace to cool down.
Q. 166Should the safety-valve be opened?
A.No; you do not want to let any more steam out of the boiler in
this condition than can be avoided. (Also, water rolls over the
Q. 167Then should the engine be stopped or the stop-valve closed
to avoid the further escape of steam?
A.No. The sudden stoppage of the outflow of steam will cause a
fall of the water level. The first thing to look out for is to
subdue the heat, which is the source from which trouble is to be
Q. 168Why had the fire better not be drawn or dumped?
A.This would result momentarily in stirring up an intense heat.
The desired cooling can be effected most rapidly by covering the
fire and admitting cold air above it.
Q. 169What about the feed supply?
A. Leave it alone. If the pump or injector is running, the water
level will be recovered gradually as the boiler stops steaming. If
the feed is not on, the sudden introduction of water upon
overheated surfaces might precipitate disaster, and the feed should
not be started until sufficient time has been allowed for such
danger to be averted.
Maybe Jackson should not have blown the whistle nor reversed the
lever; he certainly should not have been ready to scrape out the
fire. Perhaps the dreadful event in which he figured so prominently
was unavoidable. In any case, by conscientious study of manuals
like those of Boss and Case, or by serving as an apprentice under
the tutelage of a gifted and experienced engineer, the operator of
a steam engine could know what to do in any of numerous situations
which might develop, provided that this same engineer took to heart
such advice, memorized it, and made it so second-nature that, in an
emergency, action could be instantaneous without losing precious
time in bewilderment or panic. As Thurston says, ‘Emergencies
must be met with a clear head and ready wit, with perfect coolness,
and usually with both promptness and quickness of action.’ At
today’s threshing reunions and shows, the public is treated to
the magnificent spectacle of working steam engines, which were
designed by experts, the NASA scientists of their day. Spectators
marvel at the skill of the engineers knowledgeably harnessing the
energy of these imposing iron steeds. Time has not dimmed the aura
of grandeur surrounding the engineer, who exemplifies the
Shakespearean adage that the better part of valor is