November 21, 2015

In Praise of Steam Locomotives

W&LE 6401
Builder’s photo of W&LE 6401
(Click on photo for a larger image)
Above my desk is a framed builder’s photo of a Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway steam locomotive. The K-1 class Berkshire (2-8-4) was built for the railroad by ALCO in Schenectady, New York, in 1937.

I was thinking about this locomotive today and, by extension, all steam locomotives. Why were these pieces of machinery so impressive and mesmerizing to watch? Why, even now, are there so many people fascinated by steam locomotives? I haven’t researched these questions, but I think I have something of an answer.

Much of the attraction of steam locomotives—particularly of twentieth-century ones with external valve gear—is that they were practically the only instances of large, complex machines whose mechanisms were visible to the public. Even today, large machinery is either hidden in mills or factories or are driven by electric motors or internal combustion engines that move as if by magic.

Tower cranes, locks, stadium roofs, and earth moving equipment may be behemoths, but the source of their power is obscured from view. The movement we see is stately, though we know that they are animated by intricate frenetic dances of machinery within.

Trains, planes, ships, rockets, and even highway vehicles can impress us with their size and speed. Their sounds can induce awe. But they are secretive in a way that the steam locomotive is transparent.

The sense of power of the locomotive is enhanced by sight and smell—by the smoke, the escaping steam, the flames peeking out beneath the grates, by the smell of lubricants and of burning fuel. And then there is the sound—not the uniform growl of diesel engines or traction motors, but the punctuated exhaust that increases with speed, the hiss of steam escaping the cylinder cocks, and the thump-thump of the feedwater pump.

The real attraction, though, is the motion of the wheels, valve gear, and connecting rods. The driving wheels can be taller than a person; the main rod and connecting rods often seem outrageously heavy and long, almost too big to move quickly. Yet these components do move rapidly, in an action overlaid by the blur of the lesser rods of the valve gear that, through their insanely complex motion, control the valve that admits steam to the cylinder, thereby driving the piston, piston rod, and, ultimately, the drivers themselves. There is nothing like it, and we will not see its like again.

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