I have a copy of Mechanical Engineering magazine for April 1930. It marks the 50th anniversary of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and contains not only commentary on the past, present, and future of mechanical technology, but also some thoughts concerning the social/economic impact of this technology. Very interesting reading, some of it relevant to today’s issues.

There are excerpts from an address given by the ASME President in 1881:

When the last generation was in its prime our factories were in operation twelve or thirteen hours; “Man’s work was from sun to sun, and woman’s work was never done.”  today man works ten hours, and woman is coming to a stage where she will work where, when, and how she pleases.  Then three yards an hour was the product for a single operative; today ten yards per worker are produced….A single mill operative at Fall River, Lowell, or Providence makes each year cloth enough to supply 1500 of the people who pay her wages by sending her tea.

From the 1930 article on Fifty Years of Power:

Turn back to 1880…It was a machine age, true, but only in spots–and very small spots at that. Along the streams of Eastern communities, mainly in New England, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, were dotted little mills.  Water power determined their original location.  Steam aided their growth.  Within their walls spindles whirred and rolls turned almost as in a modern plant.

Step out of these nuclei of power and the machine age of that day disappears.  On the streets, the horse and buggy, the oil lamp, or gas at best, and the lamp lighter.  Horses for the street and for the plow…In the home, the oil lamp and scrub-board.  Pick and shovel in the ditch. Hod carriers on construction.  Ten-and twelve-hour days of back-breaking labor.  In the worker’s cottage, food and a little sleep…No time or money for reading, music, or play.

Points made in the multiple articles on steam power: the transition from hand-fired furnaces in power stations to mechanical stoker firing…increased steam pressures…and the transition from reciprocating engines to steam turbines.  The result was that cost per kilowatt-hour generated fell from 3.1 cents in 1883 to .77 cents in 1929.

Interestingly, only about half the power consumed in factories in 1930 was in the form of purchased electricity…the rest was self-generated, in the form of either self-generated electricity or of direct mechanical drive.  One type of reciprocating steam engine…the seen as having a continuing applicability in horsepowers too low for efficient use of the steam turbine.

Indeed, the advertising section at the back of the magazine contains an ad from the Skinner Engine Company noting that the newly-built New Yorker Hotel had chosen five Uniflow engines to generate electricity for the hotel rather than purchasing power from a utility. They claim that hundreds of engines have been installed in stores, office building, hospitals, and factories, and that the savings over utility power has proved so great that the engines brought greater returns on money invested and on floor space than any other department in the business.

Refrigeration was apparently a hot area (sorry) in 1930, and there’s a pretty long article on the topic.  One thing I hadn’t known is that some cities had central systems for cooling, in which chilled brine was circulated through pipes to individual refrigerators in homes and businesses…the refrigerator could then be very simple, with no active parts other than a thermostat-actuated valve. Such systems were in use in Boston and in New York City as early as 1890.  Sort of a “cloud” approach to refrigeration—Cooling as a Service!

Textiles were a very important industry in the US in 1930, and there is a long article on the subject. One interesting subtopic within the article has to do with dyes:

The first use of the chemical or aniline colors dates back to about 1850, when the chemists of Germany presented several new colors obtained by subjecting various fabrics to the action or absorption of liquor holding a derivative of coal tar in solution…America did not make much progress in this direction owing to certain complications and the lack of consolidated action.  What was produced here was in most cases equal to the imported product, but owing to the greater facilities for producing the color, the greater attention given to research, substantial government financial aid, and, primarily, the exceedingly low labor cost abroad, competition was out of the question.  Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.  

This problem was solved by intensive efforts during the First World War, and “whereas the value of our dye products in 1882 was $1.8 million, which increased to about $3.3 million in 1914–but with the aid largely of foreign intermediates–we now have over 200 firms producing $220 million worth of products, all more or less directly connected with this and allied industries.”

The article briefly discussed an intriguing piece of textile technology–the knot-tying mechanism:

Fifty years ago it was considered a mark of superiority to tie a perfect “weaver’s” knot, a knot that would properly unit the ends of the yarn and stay united while it was passing through the different processes…the number of operators who could tie rapidly and skillfully a series of these knots was limited.

One of the handiest mechanical devices one can see in the industry is known as a “knotter,” which forms a smoothly-tied, not-slipping knot…Just a handful of mechanism, but in the particular processes where it is used it shows an economy of operation estimated at 50 per cent in time and an unlimited amount in patience.

The author goes on to say that now (in 1930) there is equipment for collective tying of knots, bringing 2000 ends of warp together and uniting them by tying in eleven minutes.  Pretty intelligent-seeming for a purely mechanical system!

The woodworking industry was also important in the US in the 1930s, and the author of the article on this industry notes that it had only been fairly recently that this industry had emerged from small-scale operations into mass production. (The author distinguishes between “intimate industries,” those having to do with the home, and “non-intimate industries” such as mining, iron & steel, and transportation, arguing that the non-intimate industries have tended to be mechanized earlier than the intimate ones…not sure this paradigm is really consistent with the very early mechanization of textile spinning and weaving.) There’s an intriguing observation about the emergence of the automobile industry and the characteristics of different American regions:

It is a rather interesting side light on New England industry that the building of automobile bodies first started in the carriage and buggy shops of Amesbury and other parts of northern Massachusetts, while the first gasoline motors and steam engines were made in the machine shops of Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport.  New England had the genius to invent and develop the highly skilled product that was the forerunner of the modern automobile.  New England, however, fell short in vision and daring, and her factories were unwilling to venture their capital and reputation in such as risky experiment as the building of “horseless carriages” that were considered only as a luxury.  It required the daring and venturesome spirit of the Middle West to nurture and develop the tremendous automobile business of Detroit and the neighboring cities.

This is probably long enough for a single post…I’ll continue with excerpts and comments in a later post, to include the magazine’s articles on aviation, railroads, sea transportation, and machine shops…also, some additional social/political commentary.

19 thoughts on “Retro-Reading”

  1. Before we entered the First World War, the Germans supplied die stuffs and other valuable chemicals to us by merchant submarines to beat the British blockade. There’s a reason why German names are still prominent in chemistry.

    The relatively small steam light plants are more about cost of labor than anything else. It takes a lot of skilled people to keep them running and they take a lot of maintenance. They provided heat too that was more of a plus then. Now the heat from lighting in most high rise buildings is all the heat they need and a significant cooling load for most of the year.

    I hadn’t heard of home refrigeration supplied from a central plant either. The thermal losses from the piping must have been considerable. I wonder if the household use wasn’t more of a sideline of a system that mainly supplied cold for storage and ice making. Before refrigerated rail cars, every car of meat or fresh produce had to be iced down with tons of ice. While the individual cold boxes were very simple, I could have nightmares if I dwell on maintaining miles of pipeline full of corrosive brine.

  2. MCS…”While the individual cold boxes were very simple, I could have nightmares if I dwell on maintaining miles of pipeline full of corrosive brine”…even worse, some of the systems had *ammonia* pipelines.

  3. Water is still an important factor for locating factories. Industrial processes require washing, rinsing, cooling, cutting, cooking, shipping, and other things that depend on reliable and clean supplies of water.

    The funnest reciprocal engine is the stirling engine. It was the original ‘Mr Fusion’ of its era. It never did amount to anything practical, and it sure won’t now that oil is selling for next to nothing, but potential is still worth something.

  4. I was curious how long the Uniflow engines at the Hotel New Yorker were kept in service, so did a search. Seems they were in operation at least through the mid-1950s:

    I also wonder about the fuel supply for these engines…if it was coal, did the hotel have its own rail siding, or were they delivering coal by truck through the streets of New York?

  5. An IEEE Monitor article about the steam-plants in the New Yorker states that the coal was delivered by truck, and the fly-ash removed by truck.

    Also that their own generation was still in operation at the time of the 1965 great northeast blackout, but soon after that they switched to utility power.

    I note that other articles such as a popular science article from near the time of opening say that the boilers use pulverized coal with a mechanical stoking sytem, and a compressed air system to remove the fly ash directly to a waiting truck outside

  6. Great post, David.

    “Cooling as a Service!” This still exists. There are some older office buildings in downtown Chicago that have a shared cooling plant. I seem to recall having some tangential contact with litigation related to this issue within the last ten or so years.

    The story of the U.S. seizure of German dye patents in World War I is worth looking into. It was not just intensive efforts. Many people in American manufacturing were eager for us to join the Entente so we could take over German patents and plant located here. After the War the Americans found that they needed to rehire Germans to operate the plants. See “The Route to the Techno-Industrial World Economy and the Transfer of German Organic Chemistry to America Before, During, and Immediately After World War I”, Peter J. Hugull and Veit Bachmann, Comparative Technology Transfer and Society, Volume 3, Number 2, August 2005, pp. 158-186. On a related point see The Tortuous Saga of the First Wonder Drug: Aspirin by Gary Hoover.

    The demise of the New England automobile industry is an interesting saga in itself. My grandmother was an executive secretary at a Boston area company that made automobile parts of some kind, and she chose not to move to Detroit in the early 1920s when when the company upped stakes and moved to where the action was.

    “I also wonder about the fuel supply for these engines.” New York City was one of the few places in the country that had large buildings hwich used No. 6 fuel oil, maritime bunker oil, for steam plants in the buildings. It is difficult stuff to deal with and it is like tar if it is allowed to cool off. New York City had facilities to supply ocean going ships, so there was a lot of bunker oil around up until after World War II.

  7. Many grain processing plants (and other chemical plants) have steam generation for their processes, which can also be used for generating electricity. Many of the Electric ISOs (Independent System Operators) will pay to be able to use that for scarcity situations.

    Also, many homes used coal for heating. This gradually went away in the 50s?, maybe later, and some used fuel oil for heat. All of this was replaced by gas or electric heating.
    The homes that had coal would have a coal chute into the basement. I don’t know how the coal furnaces worked.

  8. Lexington – don’t forget the great Chicago flood of 1992 due to the collapse of an abandoned coal supply tunnel that went under the Chicago River. It didn’t collapse because it was old…

  9. I thought this point was especially interesting: “Hence up to 1914 we had practically no dye industry and depended on Germany not only for dyes but also for many valuable pharmaceutical preparations as well as for phenol, the basis for many of our explosives.”

    Most people, including government people, probably thought (if they thought about it at all), “Well, dye for fabrics isn’t exactly a strategic resource…sure, we like wearing & seeing attractively-colored clothes, but it’s not really a matter of life and death”…but missed the connection to the pharmaceuticals and the explosives.

    And, even more importantly, the degree to which Germany’s success in this field was an indicator (and to some degree a driver) of the extent to which Germany was getting very, very good at emerging areas of technology.

    Any connections to contemporary 2020 situations are left as an exercise for the reader.

  10. Dye is a coloring agent.

    A die is type of tooling for a mechanical process.

    For example, pressure might be applied to a set of matched dies to shape sheet metal, or leather or plastic.

  11. This issue was about the coloring type, dyes. The US was already pretty good at mass production in 1914, probably better than Germany, and I expect we had plenty of people skilled at die design & die making.

  12. The German organic chemistry and dye industry was put to use in compensating for the loss of access to quinine in WWI. Methylene Blue was a malaria drug but was too toxic for use. Eventually, as seen in this document, (pdf) the research led from methylene blue to atabrine to chloroquine and finally to hydroxychloroquine.

  13. Quite a few of my 1850s German immigrant ancestors who settled in Baltimore were identified in the Baltimore City Directories as “machinist.” When I went looking for examples of Baltimore industrial settings of the time, I found these wonderful images of early industry at Pinterest.

    The Baltimore Museum of Industry has some wonderful exhibits of and from when Baltimore was an industrial powerhouse.

  14. One of the exhibits at the Baltimore Museum of Industry is a Linotype machine, which is in working condition and which they demonstrate occasionally.

  15. The lack of knowledge in government vis-a-vis German chemical industry was sort of amazing, across the entire Entente. It was also amazing in the German government…

    One of the apparently unplanned factors for Germany was that the military had completely overlooked the need to stockpile nitrates for the long haul; they envisaged a Franco-Prussian war scenario where it was all going to be over before they could run out of things. As such… No real stockpiles of nitrates to use making explosives and fertilizers were on hand.

    Fortunately, they captured tons of the stuff at Antwerp and other ports, which gave them just enough to tide them over until the Haber-Bosch process came online. Which was another thing they hadn’t planned on, or taken into account.

    WWI was a cluster-fark of epic proportion; had it happened just a few years earlier, the Germans would have run out of explosives somewhere in early 1915, drastically shortening the war. Not to mention, had those supplies of guano not been there on the docks at Antwerp…? Had someone set fire to them? Oh, holy hell, there would have been repercussions. But, the Belgians didn’t think (or, know…) to do that, and Germany got by the early days of the war by the skin of her teeth.

    German prowess in chemistry had a lot more effect than many realize.

  16. Circling back to the power plant at the New Yorker Hotel, there’s an interesting IEEE article from 2006…may be the same one Douglas2 mentioned. The hotel’s power project was very ambitious…2500 kw, although the average hotel load was only 850 kw. The original idea was to sell power to other businesses in the area, though this never actually materialized.

    The plant ran until 1965…during the great blackout, they were one of the few buildings in Manhattan that kept the lights on.

    Nikola Tesla lived in the hotel for the last 10 years of his life….ironic, because the power system was DC-based.

    IEEE article Part 1:

    IEEE article Part 2:

  17. Stirling engines are used as propulsion for submarines. I believe the Swedes pioneered them in their AIP (air independent propulsion) submarines. They are quieter than our nuclear boats and can stay submerged for more than a week at a time.

    Ammonia is still the refrigerant used in most large commercial and industrial refrigeration systems. The systems that were circulating brine probably used calcium chloride rather than sodium chloride. CaCl is a lot less corrosive than NaCl. Still a lot of connections to leak either way.

    I believe that pollution controls eliminated use of coal in New York for small plants that couldn’t justify the cost of precipitators to eliminate fly ash. Coal is cheap but handling it takes a lot of moving wear parts and boiler tubes last much longer with oil or natural gas.

    New York also has many miles of steam lines under the streets that you hear about when one of them causes trouble.

  18. The plant ran until 1965…during the great blackout, they were one of the few buildings in Manhattan that kept the lights on.

    I was in Boston during the great blackout. The only place with lights was the New England Power Company across the river. The Mass General had been convinced to disconnect their emergency generator. The lights went out and we had to boil instruments.

  19. Ammonia is also a refrigerant used on the International Space Station, thanks to JSC’s insistence.

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