Steam technology, yesterday, today, and when?
|Let's talk about steam power. While we all know that we can do nearly anything with steam, we often don't have the opportunity to really know how steam has been used and is still in use today. So, in this first article, let me describe a place for you that is very interesting indeed.
Outside of a small town in east Texas, there is a place called "Ye Olde Machine Shoppe" that is housed in an old stone building back in the woods. As we walk up to the building, there is a large boiler and smokestack on the long side of the structure. There is a firebox there, tended by two stout fellows who intermittently shovel coal into it to maintain the heat for the boiler. There are several large gauges there, one for the firebox, one for the temperature of the boiler, and one for each of the three steam lines that come out of the boiler reading the pressure maintained in the lines. Each of these lines leads to a power exchanger, which is nothing more than a "transmission" of sorts that directs the steam pressure against the blades of a turbine, spinning an axle that leads into the building. To engage and disengage the power exchanger one has only to close the valve to that exchanger. Steam that spins the turbine then begins to cool and flows back into a condenser and flows into another line that leads back towards a collection tank back close to the boiler. Each of these lines has a vacuum gauge and a temperature gauge.
The axles that run from the power exchangers into the building have pulley wheels attached to them, and are always in motion. By using a belt that can be engaged with a clutch, machines can be started and stopped at will. In the case of the closest axle to the building entry, which is called "Line One," there are two table saws, a large sanding wheel, and a band saw. To start any one of these machines, one need only to walk to the back of the machine, squeeze the lock handle on a four-foot lever, and pull it forward to engage the gears that start the machine, locking it in place when the machine is running.
This shop is run by a small group of enthusiasts who appreciate some of the benefits of maintaining and using old equipment for modern uses. They also have lathes, drills, jointers, planers and sanders, as well as several sheet metal working tools and presses also operated by steam.
For anyone writing in the Steampunk genre, we should always be aware of the inherent dangers involved in steam operations in general. First is the fact that we are working with fire and combustible materials. Burns, exhaust gases, etc. are a common problem. More dangerous than that is dealing with the pressures that must be reached by the steam in the lines for it to be useful. Then there is the equipment. The boiler has a pressure release valve that will automatically release the steam pressure if it builds up too high, but if this valve malfunctions, or is sabotaged, anyone close at hand runs the risk of injury from an explosion or from flying rivets or bolts that fail under pressures they are not designed to withstand. Lastly, of course, is the risk of dealing with the constantly spinning axles inside the machine shop and their possibility of capturing clothing, aprons, or other items that come in contact with them.
Thus, the possibilities for conflict, intrigue, and action are built right into the realm of steam power.
This is only a short and simple introduction to steam-powered equipment, and I will go into greater depth in future articles. But for more examples, I would suggest an internet search for "steam powered equipment." Rather than look into all the articles, you might want to look for images, since there are hundreds of photographs of steam equipment from the late 19th and early 20th century that are very enlightening in and of themselves. In future articles we will also discuss the many devices and different technologies encountered in the realm of the Steampunk Universe.