Considering The Originality Question

Many Hackaday readers have an interest in older technologies, and from antique motorcycles to tube radios to retrocomputers, you own, conserve and restore them. Sometimes you do so using new parts because the originals are either unavailable or downright awful, but as you do so are you really restoring the item or creating a composite fake without the soul of the original? It’s a question the railway film and documentary maker [Chris Eden-Green] considers with respect to steam locomotives, and as a topic for debate we think it has an interest to a much wider community concerned with older tech.

Along the way the film serves as a fascinating insight for the non railway cognoscenti into the overhaul schedule for a working steam locomotive, for which the mainline railways had huge workshops but which presents a much more significant challenge to a small preserved railway. We wrote a year or two ago about the world’s first preserved railway, the Welsh Tal-y-Llyn narrow gauge line, and as an example the surprise in the video below is just how little original metal was left in its two earliest locomotives after their rebuilding in the 1950s.

The film should provoke some thought and debate among rail enthusiasts, and no doubt among Hackaday readers too. We’re inclined to agree with his conclusion that the machines were made to run rather than gather dust in a museum, and there is no harm in a majorly-restored or even replica locomotive. After all, just as a retrocomputer is as much distinguished by the software it runs, riding a steam train is far more a case of sights and smells than it is of knowing exactly which metal makes up the locomotive.

Header pic: Ben Brooksbank [CC BY-SA 2.0]

37 thoughts on “Considering The Originality Question

  1. Some of the WW2 military aircraft in flying condition have less than 50% of their original metal. The only flyable example of the P-61 Black Widow will be around 70% new construction when it’s finished. Dunno how much of the P-38 “Glacier Girl” is new build after being salvaged from deep in the Arctic ice.

  2. ” are you really restoring the item or creating a composite fake without the soul of the original?”

    The difference is that when you are mending the original, you are taking the original’s measurements and fabricating parts to fit the original intention of the engineers who made it.

    When you’re making a replica out of scratch, you are creating a new item with a new intent as your own interpretation of the item, which cannot be said to be a continuation of anything. In other words, making a new “old” steam locomotive today is not history.

    Of course, after the axe has had both its handle and its blade replaced, it is no longer the original axe and therefore the history is gone anyways. It becomes a new item.

    1. Make new parts, but use period methods to do so(Except where safety/ethics/wear and tear to existing parts is an issue).

      We don’t keep old stuff for technical reasons. We keep it because we agree history is important, and the process that was used to make and run it, is part of that history, and maybe just as important as the object itself.

      When your thoroughly research and implement a historical production method, you are basically doing a restoration on that technique itself, that would otherwise be a non-functioning museum piece.

      I really don’t care what a record player sounded like.
      I care how people experienced music differently before MP3s, and how that influenced the artist.

      I think new tech is better for everyday use almost all the time. A craptastic digital chip keeps better time than any Swiss watch, and I sure don’t want to wear something every day that costs hundreds or thousands without a darned good reason.

      But so long as there’s anyone who disagrees with me, we have to look at why, or else we risk slowly losing things without even noticing what we’ve lost.

      Living history gives you a chance to see for yourself what aspects of the past you like or don’t like, albeit through an extremely narrow window made of wavy warped glass.

      Just like right now smartphones are so ubiquitous that life without them seems totally unimaginable. Taking time away from them lets us know if we are simply using them because they are fantastic tools, or if we have a bit of addiction.

    2. At what point when it was in active service did it become a new item then? Look at wooden warships some of those served for more than 100 years after refits to keep up with advances, and with battle damage odds are good only a tiny handful of timbers (probably the key structural ones – as damage to those becomes uneconomical to repair) are original at the end of service life. Steam engines went into the workshop for large amount of repair and upgrade during their active use did they suddenly become new?

      Its an ephemeral question to some extent, but for me it doesn’t matter at all. Even a new build done with old methods is authentic enough to show a slice of history. Like that new castle being built in France – it looks in the areas that are finished as it should do new, not as an unloved ruin. It informs so much more about life in history than the surviving bare stones of that era. So for me is far more soulful and meaningful.

      Now building with new methods and trying to pass it off as old gets to being soulless. As its the imperfections of technology, the marks left by construction methods, wear left from use are what gives it history.

      So if a replica/restoration is really as close to ‘correct’ as possible – so it could pass as normal even to people from its era. Then it for me is just as much a part of history, its showing us a small slice of what life was really like. Both in the making by old methods and the end results function.

      1. “Steam engines went into the workshop for large amount of repair and upgrade during their active use did they suddenly become new?”

        Yes. Wasn’t that the point of refurbishing them in the first place?

        Steam locomotives were re-built many times during their service life – they were basically recycled into new engines and then painted with the old identification numbers. Only when they were taken out of service did they become historical items in their own right.

        It’s kinda like, think of Einstein’s pipe. When he smoked it, the pipe wore out so he replaced the bowl and the stem and the mouthpiece, and those parts he cast away were no longer the pipe that Einstein smoked, whereas the new parts became the pipe that Einstein smoked. When Einstein died and left his pipe, it became a historical item – the Pipe of Einstein – which can no longer be replaced with new parts because those parts wouldn’t be Einstein’s Pipe anymore. It would be someone else’s pipe.

      2. ” It informs so much more about life in history than the surviving bare stones of that era.”

        Actually, it’s a second-hand account of what life in history was.

        You have to remember that the way the new castle is built is not the same as how the old castle was built. It’s merely similar as far as we know. Therefore it’s not an account of history, but an account of how a bunch of experts view history. Experts have a tendency of filling the gaps with modern interpretations.

        The next guys a thousand years later will take a look at the ruins of the castle and infer the methods and reasons to how it was built, and then make up their own version to rebuild the castle again in a game of historical broken telephone. Each time, something is lost and something is made new.

        Eventually the castle will be completely different.

        1. Well in the case of the French castle they are very largely going by historical accounts, methods known to have been in use at the time and archeological evidence. Will it be 100% perfect of course not. But with such a degree of devotion to working in the historically correct way its going to be damn close. And better at showing what living in the era was like than castles already a few centuries of heavy wear and tear in. Which keeps the chinese whisper elements low.. Wait another 300 years before trying and the written accounts will have perished, quite possibly without digitizing in the interim (and even if its been brought into the digital world who knows if the files will actually be readable), the surviving buildings of the era will have further decayed or even be deliberately demolished. So the error in recreations will be very high – much more wild guessing. When history is recorded by those that lived it, and recent enough for lots of examples to study still surviving elements the result of trying to re-live that life is as close as it can get. Unless you have a Tardis and are holding out on us all. I’d go as far as to say its close enough people from that era wouldn’t notice anything out of the normal (if the people spoke in a contemporary fashion). Maybe they would go oh that architect is doing a strange thing – perhaps building something more common in 13th but this is suppose to be 12th century for example.

          For objects that have no use your argument about the Pipe makes sense. But something like a steam engine isn’t anything but a giant hunk of rust in the making if it doesn’t work. it has no historical value as rusty flakes on the floor, all motions seized – for any of them to really survive and mean anything they have to be used. Which means they have to be refurbished in as close to the old methods as possible. For steam engines this is easy as folks that worked on them before they were phased out still live and are passing on the skills to the interested. If you keep the skills and machines alive very little changes as there isn’t a need to re-invent. (yes eventually some originality has to be lost, but its far nobler to try and understand and keep history alive than go ‘oh we can’t risk the orgininality’ and have if fall to dust and be forgotten by everyone)

          1. >”For objects that have no use your argument about the Pipe makes sense.”

            A pipe has no use? How about smoking it?

            People hundreds of years later won’t really understand the pipe if they’ve never seen one in action – experienced how the tobacco is lit, how the thumb is closed over the bowl to create a draft, and how the smoker carefully coaxes the pipe to keep it burning for as long as possible. If it doesn’t work, it’s just a small piece of wood and plastic. You see how the same argument fits? The value of Einstein’s Pipe is that it’s the real object – that you could pick up and actually smoke – although doing so will slowly destroy the pipe.

            The sad reality is that you can’t have your cake and eat it as well. If your intent is to use the object, then you have to accept the fact that it will be destroyed eventually – and nothing can replace it. If you preserve it, then later generations can use it and experience a real piece of history, but they too will have to make the same choice.

        1. The apparent paradox of the Ship of Theseus in identifying the ship in the first place. What makes it The Ship and not just any ship?

          When you answer that question, you’ll see that the whole thing doesn’t even apply here because locomotives, like ships, aren’t just their parts.

    3. I would argue that it is a series of transitions to working states. To use the ax example, you replace the head but keep the handle. the ax can be used and the new head takes on the existing history. when the handle is later replaced, the new handle takes on the history from the head. The history is in the identification of the ax, not as much in its physical state. As Pterry put it
      “This, milord, is my family’s axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation . . . but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y’know. Pretty good.”
      ― Terry Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant

  3. “riding a steam train is far more a case of sights and smells than it is of knowing exactly which metal makes up the locomotive”

    Historians on the other hand might be interested in the chemical composition and manufacture of the metal components. If all the parts have been replaced by replicas made in the 50’s and in the 00’s then the historical value of the piece is diminished in terms of originality. It no longer represents the period when it was originally made, but the periods when it was re-made.

    It becomes meta-history because it represents an earlier understanding of an even earlier period of history – like reading the historical accounts written by Tacitus. Some things are preserved, but this new item is a second hand account.

  4. Shades of Triggers broom #OnlyFoolsAndHoreses.
    Without any such restoration or preservation, all these examples of historic tech’ and other things (buildings etc) would be lost forever.
    And then there are the totally new builds to original plans (with acceptable changes for modern safety needs) such as the Tornado locomotive. Truely magnificent.

  5. I have two bins near my computer: for “O”s and for “l”s.
    If you watch closely to this post of mine, you’ll notice I used some of these bins content for “1“s and “0“s.
    This ist supposed to represent “originality”!

  6. Everything in the material universe wears and everything that endures does so because it is serviced, even our own bodies by the continual death and replacement of cells. What endures, and always a bit imperfectly because this is the way the universe works, is information; what a thing is is not the atoms and molecules that make it up but its structure and purpose. A steam engine may have none of its original parts after a century of continuous use but it will still be a steam engine and not an electric motor. It may be more efficient and use different, more readily available fuel, but it still won’t be a diesel engine or a laptop computer.

    Just as, if you put a photograph of me today next to one of me from thirty years ago, you might say those are two very different people. But there is a pathway from that person to the one who exists today which no other person has ever taken.

  7. There is difference between fixing, to keep using something, and restoring, to preserve that thing in its original state.

    Just for fixing, we can replace parts and materials if better / cheaper/ etc things appear.

    When restoring, effort should made be to be truest to the original as possible.

    Same as the final object, the fabrication methods are important to be preserved, because just being older doesn´t make them “worse” than our more modern ways.

    Wasn´t here in HaD that an article about studies on why Roman concrete from 2 thousand years ago still worked ok under water, and “modern” concrete would start deteriorating after a bunch of decades ?

    1. And then there was that car builder, Boyd Coddington(?) who built a “1957 Chevy” from aftermarket parts and was upset when the License Bureau said it wasn’t an 1957 Chevy.

  8. Most of the cells in the human body are replaced during the typical lifetime. But no one is claiming that the “renovated” person is a different person. (Except maybe the lifer who can claim his original body has served his life sentence, so now he can be released).

    Oh, and you can fit 42 angels on the head of a pin.

    1. The myth of the 7 year replacement rate is because it’s an average between cells that have life-times measured in days or weeks, and the other parts that are only very slowly replaced if at all.

      There are parts, like many of the cells of your central nervous system, the lens of your eye, the enamel on your teeth, that are pretty much with you for life. Your brain and spinal column aren’t replaced, so you’re pretty much the same person as far as the thinking parts go.

  9. There was a large steam-powered machine of a type I forget, that the ‘conservators’ at the museum in Ottawa, Canada, thought had tolerances that were too large. So they completely rebuilt it to tighter tolerances, like one would find in a modern ICE. When they were done, it no longer worked. They found one running fine (down in Vermont?), measured it, and found its tolerances were what their machine had before they decided to improve it. They re-machined to those looser tolerances, and it ran just fine.

    1. I can believe that, knowing something about tolerancing in IC engines and the reasons for it. You don’t want to build your 40s V8 with modern ring and bearing tolerances if you’re going to run straight 30W oil in it, and you don’t wanna build it to the original spec if you’re going to put modern SAE SM or later spec multigrade oil in it. I don’t know if it’s all steam engines but know some at least rely on the condensing water film on the relatively cooler cylinder wall as the cylinder lubricant, so water not being motor oil, you’ll definitely cause problems.

      1. There’s a little bit of oil added to the water, but other than that it’s the water that keeps everything lubricated. The tolerances have to be made so the water surface tension doesn’t cause the water to be squeezed out from the gap, which would make the sliding surfaces run dry.

  10. The answer seems to depend on what the actual use of the object is going to be.
    If it’s an object in regular use and absolutely needs to be in functional order and/or have legal restrictions on how long parts can be used, then whatever replacement parts and/or repairs are required (even a complete rebuild, like those steam engines) must be done to keep it going in service and it is still the same object.
    If, instead it is a static display in a museum to only be touched by historians and maybe the cleaners with a feather duster, then the parts it has as originally donated or loaned should be preserved and any structural repairs should be clearly identifiable as such (like some museum display items having brightly coloured & labelled parts substituted to keep the shape of the item intact).

  11. Steam power is f**cking voodoo. I’m pretty sure there’s a seance that I tried and failed to figure out. Managed a 22-unit apartment building with a steam boiler the size of a car. Radiators were weird in that instead of a normal steam vent there was a fan… Powered by steam. They’d always get clogged and cruddy. I can only imagine the spells these train’s engineers had to cast.

  12. I find it fascinating and intriguing that the British, who are responsible for the creation of the steam engine/locomotive continue to foster and nurture this technology–going even to the extent of designing and building, from scratch, a totally brand-new steam locomotive–the ‘Pacific’-class (4-6-2 wheel arrangement) No. 60163 Tornado, which effort started in 1990 and culminated in the locomotive’s inaugural run in 2008.

    The steam engine is, arguably, one of the most important inventions extant, leading to the very creation of schools of engineering and technology, and the attraction of untold thousands upon thousands of individuals into the disciplines directly and indirectly associated with the steam engine and the locomotive…and this led, of course, to the hundreds of thousands of mechanical (et al) engineers utilized by the many new industries developing in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s…

    We yanks can claim something of importance in this scenario: the ‘Whyte notation’ of classifying locomotives by their wheel arrangements (see “4-6-2”, above)…oh, and the name ‘Pacific’, for that particular wheel arrangement.

    In the meantime, the British get the prize for having a much longer memory than most.

  13. Make new parts, replace the originals but keep them in storage or museum display.
    Repeat until the locomotive has no original pieces.
    Reassemble all the original pieces back into the full original locomotive for static display.

  14. While preserving unique locomotives in a museum if they cannot viably be made to run is a good method of preserving them, but the magic in steam traction is not in the locomotive when it’s at standstill. When replaced the original parts should be kept and preserved as they have a history to show in and of themselves (manufacturing, metallurgy, history, etc) but I think it’s foolish to not keep engines running, especially if we have multiple examples of a type.

    Steam traction (be it railway or road locomotives, or static engines) when under power have a special quality about them. It almost universally touches people in a way that you won’t get with a “dead” machine. The soft pops, whistles, hisses and crackles and clinks coming from it even when it’s standing still, the blast and whoosh of the exhaust steam at every stroke as it strains to gets underway, the rhythmic “breathing” as it speeds along. The sights, sounds and smells in a machine hall as 4 machines put out several hundred horsepower each, pumping thousands of gallons of water a second, yet you can whisper to the person next to you. Steam power is the closest human beings have come to making something alive. And I think many can feel that when they stand next to “dead” engine. It feels wrong. (like the example given in the video, a stuffed animal feels wrong and slightly creepy)

  15. On a similar note, if you’re restoring a wooden boat, but you end up replacing most of the wood, is it still the same boat?
    This bloke is rebuilding a one hundred year old boat, and by the end pretty much all of the structural timbre and planking will have been replaced.
    Leo’s personal answer is that as long as it still looks somewhat like a boat throughout the process, then it is still the same boat.
    He also makes the very good point that as far as ownership is concerned, your insurance company will also treat it as the exact same boat. If it’s good enough for Lloyds of London, it’s good enough for me :)

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