Retrotechtacular: The Iron Giants That Built The Jet Age

In the closing months of World War II, the Axis and the Allies were throwing everything they had at each other. The tide was turning to the Allies’ favor, but the Germans were showing a surprising resilience, at least in terms of replacing downed fighter and bomber aircraft. When the Allies examined the wreckage of these planes, they discovered the disturbing truth: the planes contained large pieces forged from single billets of metal, which suggested a manufacturing capability none of the Allies possessed and which allowed the Germans to quickly and cheaply make better and faster planes.

When the war was over, the Allies went looking for the tools the Germans had used to make their planes, and found massive closed-die forging presses that could squeeze parts out of aluminum and magnesium alloys in a single step. The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. Thus began the Heavy Press Program, an ultimately successful attempt by the US military to close a huge gap in strategic manufacturing capabilities that [Machine Thinking] details in the excellent video below.

One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. But without it and similar machines that came from the program, planes from the B-52 to the Boeing 747 would have been impossible to build. And this isn’t dead technology by any means; sold to Alcoa in 1982 after having been operated by them for decades, the “Fifty” recently got a $100 makeover after cracks appeared in some castings, and the press and its retro-brethren are still squeezing out parts for fighters as recent as the F-35.

44 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Iron Giants That Built The Jet Age

      1. Hmm JD…
        By “hot-snot” for cast iron and forged steel I expect you mean something rather more substantive and chemically compatible than any sort of thermoset metal enhanced epoxy (thermoplastic oozes under pressure) – more detail ?

        Such as thermite like fluid pliable highly viscous formulation (with suitable volumetric moderators) hydraulically inserted under high pressure. The whole region then pre-heated to most effective temperature of course for managing thermal stresses, then ignited and Stand Back for the show :-)

          1. Yeah wow, this is why I posted something rather more detailed and more encompassing to provide more value than so called hot shot/hotsnot/welding. It doesn’t have particularly good pentration for the most part and prone to cracking it’s far from ideal for these sorts of toolings. Understand the stresses on these castings are not just one or two dimensional and by handling surface area issue beneath superficial factors is far more assuring than a hot snot weld…

          2. Oh really Luke why be so vague/ambiguous – not heard of emoticons so your comments are far less likely to be misinterpreted in terms of broad context and intent at the very least ?
            Rambling – really please read again maybe look up key words ? Learn a bit more about welding in confined circumstances, look up rail repairs especially where they must tolerate km long trains carrying heavy ores long distances…
            BTW. Very simple one liners might therefore mean such blurts could betray underlying facile thinking approaches by not offering (or thinking it’s useful) anything more than simplest emotional reactions this is not IRC – it’s a form with comments relevant and hopefully helpful to advance. – intellect can be good yeah – plus industry experience too ? Suggest increase your mineral intake significantly, been there done that, as I’m sure you have already seen from me. IOW: Try an effort beyond simple habits that any Ai script can do ;-)

          3. No, serioiusly. You seem to only barely know who or what you’re replying to, you launch off into irrelevant tangents in a word salad. You’re not alright in the head – please go see a doctor.

          4. Luke, you might endeavour to inform the readers more than “it’s welding”. What kind of welding? How do you weld inside a tight crack like that, for something that has to withstand, and inflict, some ridiculous number of tons of pressure?

            I don’t know much about welding. Apparently you do, it would be kind to enlighten us. It would be helpful.

    1. Here are some possibilities Luke,
      1. Variation of maestro ie conductor/master. The person deciding made up something different and shorter too so it could fit easily between the tops of the RAMs. ie A machine that size could be deemec to be the master conductor, changing it slightly avoids some sense of potential association with Italian.
      2. Powerful association of those that control, ie. Observe many RAMs working together could be obtuse interpretation as from this origin
      Note: Male sheep are RAMs, many working together as a group, is it that obvious ?

      My money is mostly on item 2 especially so if the designer or someone in that group had Spanish lineage and thought the machine is also the master ie. Then part item 1 too :-)

      1. “wikipedia is the best thing ever, anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information”
        michael scott :)

  1. “The Soviets carted off a 30,000 ton machine, while the Americans went home with a shipload of smaller presses and the knowledge that the Russians had an edge over them. ”

    Not that massive if they’re being carted away. ;-)

    “One doesn’t instantly equate monstrous machines such as the Mesta 50,000-ton press, over nine stories tall with half of it buried underground and attached directly to bedrock, with airplane manufacture. ”

    Metal’s, metal, needs to be worked. Anyway automotive is another place I’ve seen such massive machines. Serious vibration as it works.

    1. As far as vibration, I was once stood on a bridge a couple of metres away from whatyoucallit, a drop hammer? Big crane thing lifts up a weight then drops it, to hammer bits of metal into the ground for foundations. That was fun! Clickclickclickclick… bounce! I actually bounced into the air just a little bit every time it hit.

  2. I don’t typically post “fluff” comments, but that was truly fascinating. Hopefully you avoid all the “not a hack” replies, because I believe the vast majority of the readers here are genuinely interested in the behind the scenes aspects of our lives. It’s the reason we all started taking things apart to see how they worked (I think I still owe my mom a mixer….).

  3. George Mesta was a second generation of German Immigrants and was born in Pennsylvania. His father William’s name is spelled Moesta in some places, (which could be confusion with a different Wlilliam Moesta who was ALSO a German Immigrant and who died the same year, 1892, but settled in Richmond Virginia.) His mother was also a German Immigrant.

    George was disowned by his father for wanting to pursue Engineering.

    George Mesta died in 1925 in New York.

    His wife Perle Mesta went on to become a FAMOUS and influential Democratic activist starting with Harry Truman -who made ber Ambassador to Luxembourg for her troubles- right on up through JFK. Richard Nixon once even made an off-hand remark about her “big bosoms”.

    The play by Irving Berlin *Call Me Madam” was based on the life of Perle Mesta, and the popularity of the term “Hostess with the Mostest” is attributed to descriptions of her.

    1. You either have a shocking amount of random trivia at your disposal, or you’re alarmingly good at making up plausible-sounding stories on the spot.

      Either way you’ve made the comments section more interesting!

  4. Reminds me of the ’70s when I had a call to repair some automation machinery at Detroit Forge. They had these big crankshaft forging presses that were fed billets from a rolling induction heater. The billets were about the size of a very large loaf of bread, and the machines made the ground shake when they struck. You needed earplugs with earmuffs over them just to make the noise tolerable.

    1. Someone above was commenting on how drop forging presses shake the ground…they do, but hydraulic presses don’t. I work in the plant the 50K Mesta is in. The rebuild of the press was managed by my boss. The press was rebuilt because the base castings were cracked. The project’s main task was to replace them. Cast steel can’t be effectively welded to repair serious structural cracks.

  5. Having seen one of these 50,000 forging presses in person (one of the first in north america, at wyman gordon) It’s something else, the press was in active use the day I visited for another machine, truly incredible to see in person – it is like a house moving up and down. The material flow and deformation displayed during the striking is insane

    1. Really big lathes, not forging. The navy had monsters in the Philadelphia area to finish machine naval rifles. Since forging requires soft material that is hot…I think they forge alloy steel above 1600F. Machining works best with hard materials. The buggest guns we made, the Iowa’s barrels, were 16″-50 cal, so the barrels were about 65′ long. Not just any machine can swing over 50 tons.

  6. Man, not sure how I missed this article. I used to work in the plant that housed the sister press to the one highlighted in this article. Spent a lot of time underground climbing around the press. Quite a machine, and it still runs every day.

  7. The old Mesta plant is still there in West Homestead Pa. It operates under the name of West Homestead Engineering & Machine Co. Best I know they make parts for all of Mesta’s equipment. The old Mesta home is close by. There is or used to be a tunnel that ran from the house down the hill to a street across from the main plant entrance.

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