Retrotechtacular: Steam Locomotive Construction in the 1930’s

Here’s a fascinating look at high-tech manufacturing in the 1930’s. This week’s Retrotechtacular features the building of a steam-powered locomotive. The quality of the black and white footage, and the audio accompanying it are almost as impressive as the subject material — which is nothing short of a machinist’s wet-dream but also includes much forging and smithing. Digging through the video for a suitable still image was a tough task, as every step in the process was interesting to us. But this image showing some of the 2700 feet of tubing used in the locomotive seems most appropriate.

The build covers all aspects of the build. Huge sheets of steel make up two side plates between which the cast engine block is mounted. The mold for casting was huge, required twelve hours dry time before the pour, and took a day or two to cool before breaking the mold. That yielded a rough block which then headed off for machining.

We were delighted by the crane used to transport steel sheets from the oven to a stamping machine. The counterweight is workers (and lots of them) on the other side of the fulcrum. After a glimpse of the ancillary part fabrication you begin to get a look at the complexity of the machine as it is assembled.

Does anyone feel a deep appreciation for the pedagogy that went into making something like this? What we mean is that the teams building No. 6207 don’t seem to be using skills learned in a book or from a class, but rather those passed down from the masters that have been on the job most of their lives. Watching them all work is nothing short of astounding!

[Thanks Erkka]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

52 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Steam Locomotive Construction in the 1930’s

      1. You missed the narrator mentioning the special headgear kept the sweat out of the forge workers eyes ;) No doubt rural smithies of the era, and earlier where wearing leather aprons I was bit surprised not to see them here. Only if to protect clothing from damage.

      2. Please… they knew that doing something the wrong way could cost them there life and possibly the lives of there family’s too so they probably had a pretty good idea on how to stay safe.
        It’s still fantastic and inspiring work!

        1. You don’t really know the history of the rail road very well do you? Check out the Railroad Safety Appliance Act passed in 1893 then look at what happened the Brake Men before that law took effect in 1900. Check out the history of the couplers too. Missing fingers were very common then.

          1. @pcf11
            What the hell do you think? His post was in response to Jw’s. He was pointing out that knowing the danger doesn’t make you less safe because humans make mistakes.

          1. There, there now. I’ve just about given up on the whole their, there, they’re thing on the Internet anymore and accepted that most people are functioning illiterates.

  1. Great stuff.
    At one point the narrator says something along the lines of “who says now that the day of the craftsman is no more?”. Hard to believe there were people that didn’t appreciate the skills of the time, nostalgic for an earlier era of proper craftsmen.

    I wonder in 80 years will they be looking back mourning the loss of the highly skilled HTML coder. Nah probably not.

    1. I” wonder in 80 years will they be looking back mourning the loss of the highly skilled HTML coder. Nah probably not.”
      wouldnt surprise me if they did, simply because an easier alternative exists.

      1. I thought the time of skilled HTML coders died about a decade ago. At the time, I was the only person left that actually coded, everyone else used programs or wizards or stylesheet templates to do it for them.

        1. But aren’t programs, wizards, style sheet templates tools to increase productivity? Analogous to the power hammers used in the forge here.

          1. i would say so,
            the point is that these things have often been heralded as the fall of x throughout the ages, sometimes justifiably so, but is there really any virtue wasting brainpower and energy on something done better with less effort through other means?

          2. Yes, I just liked making polished, super efficient gems. Things like ‘Why does this page we are on have 1556 lines of code? (seriously, it does)’ used to bother me.

            Hardly anyone is still on dialup anymore so it is fine to be ‘wasteful’ just like massive software bloat is fine because our processors are 400 times more powerful.

  2. My god. I know such things must still exist to some extent, but seeing milling bits designed for 3-tonne slabs of steel is a hell of a thing.

  3. Have you ever seen how a nuclear powered aircraft carrier (or SSBN) is
    built ? It’s an incredible feat involving tremendous engineering and skilled
    workers (also costs a few billion dollars… lol)

    However watching this video, it makes one wonder if the skills
    attributed to extra-terrestrials building the ancient pyramids or other such
    masterpieces, were really brilliant human engineers instead – and their
    knowledge was lost (like the Dark Ages being ushered in by the collapse
    of the Roman Empire – when all their engineers perished).

    1. “However watching this video, it makes one wonder if the skills
      attributed to extra-terrestrials building the ancient pyramids or other such
      masterpieces, were really brilliant human engineers instead…”

      The hell you say!

        1. There you go, this guy does a pretty damned good job talking common sense into people and has a bit on Pumapunku that covers pretty much all of the issues.

    2. Engineering knowledge wasn’t really lost on a large scale when Rome fell. It’s just that with the collapse of the empire Europe lost the power structure that could move resources and people around to actually DO stuff with the knowledge. The common folk were back to basically mud and stone huts, but at the same time the nobility were building castles and cathedrals that were a direct extension of Roman engineering. They don’t have the same wow factor as the great Roman buildings, but that’s mostly because they’re fortresses rather than monuments.

      Even ignoring that, the eastern Roman Empire kept trucking (more or less) until its final conquest in the 1400s.

      1. I think you are misrepresenting things, since the cathedrals actually show that some tricks were not used anymore, clearly demonstrating a loss of some technical know-how.
        And of course you can observe it ‘life’ all around you, people forget stuff, even when the patents describing them are available at google patent search (that’s a thing btw, https://www.google.com/?tbm=pts)

    3. I think some things, like building the pyramids, were SO simple, we just haven’t thought about it yet. It’s not that anything was “lost”.
      Think about it, do you have a book on how to go to the bathroom? Or how to dig a hole in your back yard? (a simple hole, not a pool or something, just a hole). Of course not. why not? Because it was SO simple, you don’t NEED a book!
      I think it’s the same thing with the pyramids. The way they did it, was so bloomin’ simple, they never ever considered that we would forget how we/they, did it. So there was no sense in writing it down.
      And like Puma Punku, you have to remember, those people like the Egyptians etc… all worked in stone, for something like hundreds of years. A family, worked in stone, all day long, every day, for their ENTIRE lives, and then the next generation worked in stone, and the next etc…. for generations.
      They WILL figure out the best way to do things that way. How long have we been building houses the way we have? Wood frame houses, with drywall? 70 years or so? That is NOTHING compared to what they did. By the time we spend 10 generations building wood frame houses, we’d have some magnificent houses.
      But, in a few years, we’ll have moved on to something else, and this too will become a “lost art”, much like the old “plaster walls”. Many people can’t “throw” plaster like they used to, because people just forgot how it’s done. (wood slat walls, covered in plaster with horse hair in it).
      It’s not “lost” so much, as what’s “worth” writing down. How simple is it? Will people forget? Is it “so simple, people will always know how it’s done”……
      And the answer is, write EVERYTHING down. We should have learned our lesson by now, but probably haven’t. We’re relying too much on stuff like DVD’s and CD’s and paper to store information. That stuff won’t be around in 100, 300 years.
      THEN how much will be “lost”???

  4. There’s a train museum [http://www.earm.co.uk](that also hosts awesome beer festivals) about 15 mins from my house that has a few of these engines on show, pretty sure they are also marked ‘Crewe’ so maybe made at the same yard. I will be sure to check when I’m there next month :)

    1. Just checked, they have some still running and you can take a ride! Would be amazing to see one of these beasts still in action! Also, I forgot the obligatory “This is great!” & “Impressive”, where are my manners?

    1. Probably. When you look at the history of modes of transportation, you’ll be surprised at what pops out. Look up the Lohner-Porsche to give you an idea. A hybrid car manufactured from 1900 to sometime in 1905. All without fancy circuitry and exotic materials you find in a car today.

      dig deeper and go past the lame conspiracy bullshit and you’ll find a time in America where gas and diesel were equally as common as other means of locomotion. If it can be converted into motion there’s good chance you would find a vehicle that used it. Point is, that fancy new hybrid/electric car you have was already tried about 100 years ago :)

  5. Wow! Amazing watching the molten steel sparks flying all over when they are pouring the cylinders and no one even flinches. I get all whiny when I get hit by a splash of solder.

  6. It is impressive to see such a big and complex machine being
    manufactured and assembled before fancy CAD/CAM/3D modelling software,
    computers, and the internet.

    1. Engineering drawings would still have been made back then, except by hand with rulers, protractors and compasses. I wonder if engineering drawing courses are still taught in any school anymore,

      1. I took a drafting course that was all paper several years ago. They said it is more important than ever as the rough sketched out draft often goes straight in to CAD/CAE programs instead of several intermediary drafts. With french curves not allowed I did very poorly :(

        1. Why didn’t they allow French Curves? I can’t use CAD software, as the stuff makes no sense to me. But I have a fairly comprehensive set of drafting instruments now.

    2. Impressive indeed. One tends to forget what our great-grandfathers could already do with seemingly primitive means. To think that that was stste of the art in transportation when they started nuclear physics …

      On a similar note, I read an article a while ago on an aquaeduct built by the Romans, I forget where in France. Something like 15m slope on a distance of over 60 km. A bridge spanning a whole valley with some 50m of height and a slope of a mere 2 cm. Almost 2000 years ago.
      I wonder whether in 2000 years they’ll be saying similar things about our days.

    1. I’ve read that the space shuttle has literally a million moving parts. I can’t imagine what a mindfuck the drawings must be.

      1. Sometimes the plans get drastically simplified. All the plans for the first 5th of the Pentagon remodel were many thousands of pages due to accommodations that had to be made for the parts of the original 1940’s structure that would be left, and the PENREN project would take several years for each wedge.

        Sept. 11, 2001, the first 5th of the above ground part was only a week or two from completion. After the fires were put out and the investigation completed, the entire wedge was razed and rebuilt from the ground up, along with demolition and rebuilding beginning on the next wedge where it had been fire damaged.

        Two months short of a year later, the outer ring section was open for occupancy.

        I recall someone involved in the re-reconstruction saying that the plans for the complete rebuild of that wedge were only a few hundred pages. Much less documentation required when there’s nothing old to have to work around.

        But even more amazing was the pace of the building’s original construction. A Congressional hearing was held July 17, 1941 to get ideas for a new building for the War Department. Goundbreaking began September 11, 1941. Construction was completed only 16 months later, even though it was being designed as construction proceeded.

        What’s extra odd is the only reason it’s The Pentagon is because the building site originally selected was Arlington Farms, which was roughly pentagonal in shape. When a different site was chosen, the plans were modified to make it a regular pentagon and additional land was bought so it’d fit the space.

  7. Even on tourist railroads today, it’s hard work to operate the steam engines. Boiler explosions do happen. Preventing them can depend on knowledge you’ve gained from being experienced with the engine, something you can’t learn from a book. You gotta really appreciate the folks who operate steam engines.

  8. I just grabbed a book on steam engine repair that goes into details about choosing your type of boiler and types of fuel. It is from the 1910’s and is a very dencse collection of knowledge and interesting pictures that most modern books do not have any more and you would be hard pressed to find on the internet.

  9. Is it just me that wishes the environmental lobby would bring them back, running on biomass fuel pellets? Would certainly get me on trains more often.

    1. So would free beer. :V

      Seriouspost: sorry if you didn’t mean to imply this, but the environmental lobby isn’t the main reason steam trains went away. Modern diesel electrics are just that much more efficient, and have the handy side benefit of rarely exploding.

      1. And less air-pollution too. And incidentally due to the smoke and heat and noise andsoforth the stations were completely differently designed from modern ones, with very high roofs and designed to funnel away the smoke, so even if you ran a steam engine you’d have those issue.
        But there are still places where they use steam engines for public transport on this planet I think, even today.

  10. I’m part of a team that is designing a Diesel-electric locomotive.

    We’ve been working on it for months, and even with CAD and a “template” design it is a huge amount of work. Watching this while working on that project is absolutely amazing!

  11. LNER Peppercorn Class A1 60163 Tornado. Construction started in 1994, completed in 2008. The first steam locomotive to enter passenger service anywhere in many decades. External dimensions are identical to the original 49 Peppercorn A1 series, except for the height of the cab roof being one inch lower to meet maximum height limits.

    Many improvements were made, using modern techniques and extrapolating how steam locomotive technology would have advanced in the absence of the diesel-electric. Where the originals’ main frame rails had to be made in two pieces, the new one’s were cut from single pieces of steel plate. Everywhere the original used plain bearings there’s roller or ball bearings in the new one. Higher strength metals and welding instead of the originals’ rivets.

    The sad part about it is how much of the build had to be shopped out to other countries due to a total lack of the ability to make the parts in the UK. There wasn’t a rolling mill large enough in the country to make the boiler, that had to be done in Germany. They’ve even had to import coal from Russia to run it, at least once getting such poor quality that the boiler couldn’t even raise 100psi steam pressure.

    Since the end of WW2 and the beginning of the shrinking of the British Empire, the UK has steadily thrown away its ability to build big things.

    1. The Tornado annoys me, it may have a few modern modern touches but it’s basically an ‘old’ design, it’s a fake. Remember, the originals were the best, most efficient possible with the available technology. If it had really been developed then there would have been an enclosed driver’s cab with a decent view, at the front. no fireman, fluidised bed combustion, and possibly turbine power.

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