Steam Engine Stripped

Ever seen a steam engine stripped to its shell?  Toward the end of last week, Jim and I had the opportunity to do just that when we visited where Engine 2926 is being restored by a group of talented train enthusiasts belonging to the New

Ken and 2926

Mexico Steam Locomotive and Railroad Historical Society.

Our guide, Ken Dusenberry, started us out by showing us the already completed tender.  The tender – for those of you who (like me) don’t know much about trains – is where the water and oil is carried.  This one was equipped to hold 24,500 gallons of water and over 7,000 gallons of oil.  Looking at the tender, bright and shiny in its fresh coat of paint, it was hard to believe that this was a machine dating from 1944, built to support transportation of troops and supplies for WWII.

Quick historical aside here…  Yes.  Steam engines were already becoming outdated by 1944, in the process of being replaced by diesel-electric engines.  However, WWII influenced what engines went where.  To paraphrase Ken Dusenberry, “In 1944, just about every diesel engine was going into a submarine somewhere.  That’s why this train was built for steam.”

After we viewed the tender, Ken took us through to where the steam engine itself was being restored.  Jim and I had seen it a few years back, and even though it was obviously old (Engine 2926 sat for many years out in the open in a park in Albuquerque) it had a certain dignity and grandeur.  This was a very different machine.

The cab had been removed.  So had the outer plating.  This left the brown metal exposed to inspection.  Grids had been drawn all over the body, sections within the grid neatly numbered.  Pipes and bolts were clearly visible.  Such a job could not have been done out of doors in many other places in the United States.  However, Albuquerque’s very dry climate meant that what rust the engine had accumulated was minimal – and the worst of it dated back to those years as a park ornament, when watering the park’s lawn meant the engine got sprayed with water a few times a week.

I’m not going to even try to summarize all the details we heard in Ken’s intricate and informative talk.  However, I can say I came out of it with a great deal more appreciation for how intricate a piece of technology a steam engine is.  I suppose, having seen them in old movies, having heard one too many stories about little boys staring at tea kettles on the boil and dreaming up steam engines, I thought they were fairly simple.  No such thing!

As I listened to Ken talk about the various people who had worked on the project, about their contributions, not only of time and money, but of knowledge as well, I began to realize something else.  Even in this day and age of written records, knowledge gets lost very easily.  By “knowledge” I mean something more complicated than mere information.  By “knowledge” I’m talking about the combination of experience and information that comes together to tell someone that a machine (or anything else) is working right.

Over and over again, Ken mentioned how important were the contributions of people who had worked on other engines or who had worked in some capacity or other on working steam engines.  This last category provided particular treasures.  As Ken put it, “When we hear that someone actually worked on a steam engine – or even better, drove one – we grab that person and drag him off, then start asking questions.”

All this got me thinking…  A popular sub-genre of SF (and some Fantasy, too) deals with the rediscovery of lost technology.  In these tales, the old machine is found.  The characters in the story want to get it up and running again.  Sometimes they find the old instruction manuals, sometimes they’ve just “heard” about how the old machines worked, sometimes there’s an old computer around from which information can be scavenged.

Having listened to what Ken and his associates have gone through in their restoration of Engine 2926, I suspect this is a very simplistic picture.  They’re working on a machine that was built in 1944 and ran for some years thereafter.  In these stories, the “lost” technology is often hundreds or thousands of years old.  I can’t help but think that, while the information might be available, the “knowledge” about the finer points would have been lost.

Told right, though, figuring out the missing parts of the picture could make for a gripping story.  Has anyone written something like that recently?  Any titles you could recommend?  How would you figure out how to launch that ancient space ship you just happen to find in your backyard?

18 Responses to “Steam Engine Stripped”

  1. Pat McGee Says:

    Donald Kingsbury, in Psychohistorical Crisis, about pages 311-325, 349-352, 363-371, 379-388, recounts the attempt to reconstruct a “Venteen Flying Fortress” from a fossilized remain. (Set 75,000 years into the future; so far that this fossil is judged to be contemporaneous with the Great Pyramid.) The remain is complete, but only as traces of oxide patterns in sedimentary rock – and who’s to know how close the measurements were to the original. Kingsbury wrote an extended riff on “what is an inch?” and how that relates to engineering tradeoffs.

    The leader of the effort absolutely insists that the reconstruction _will_ fly, and will do it under it’s own power, with no antigravity assists. To meet this goal, he tells the reconstructors that all of them _will_ be aboard on the maiden flight and that he will personally launch out of the “bomb nest” anyone caught adding any modern technology.

  2. heteromeles Says:

    Hmmm. I don’t know of a recent story. The last story I wrote actually assumed the opposite. The underlying idea was that deep time is full of settlements of time travelers, but their technology is so good that they left almost no traces of their presence for us to find, except by rare accident.

    One of the things that I’ve gotten fascinated by is the assumption that technology lasts. Many items from the Space Age are already badly decayed (no surprise when you think about it: they were designed to work perfectly…once, using cutting edge materials whose long-term properties were unknown at the time). Similarly, I’ve got computer disks from 10 years ago that are already unreadable. I also own some knives that were designed to last for 50 years of regular use. They are definitely overbuilt, but they need regular care and maintenance even so.

    That’s one of the central paradoxes around slower-than-light starships. We want to develop vehicles that will last thousands of years, harnessing energies we never experience in our normal lives for that entire time, without ever failing. And furthermore, we’re puzzled that this technology doesn’t exist, although nuclear plants failing after a few decades doesn’t particularly surprise us. There’s a disconnect in there somewhere…

  3. Pat McGee Says:

    Hi heteromeles,
    That reminds me of a short story about an archaeologist who gets a grant for a dig somewhere. Someone challenges her assertion that the site was of a very low-tech society, saying that she wasn’t even looking for any traces of metals. The dig was old enough that any evidence would have long since oxidized into invisibility except to fairly high-tech instruments. She remains unconvinced and wants to spend the whole grant on workers to excavate. In the end, she does decide to order something (a mass spectrometer?) to at least look for metal traces, but the story closes there and we never see any results.

    Story was probably published in Analog somewhere between about 5 and maybe 15 years ago. I don’t remember any more details. From your second sentence, it sounds like this might have been your story. Hmmm?

    Back to Psychohistorical Crisis. While I described one sub-plot, I didn’t think to say that I felt fascinated by the entire book and greatly enjoyed all of it. I highly recommend it.

  4. Dominique Says:

    Jane, you got me day dreaming with today’s post!

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It’s not the quite same thing, but this makes me think of my job at the movie theater. I can tell when something’s wrong with the popcorn ketel. The popping just dosen’t sound right.

    That kind of insight can get lost over time. I could give you a long explintion of exactly how my car works. But after you’ve driven one for a while, you’re able to sense when something isn’t quite right. The steering seams stiff. It feels slow acelerating. No manual can hold that.

    How would I launch an acient ship? Well, after reading this, by trial an error. The manual would keep me from driving the ship into the ground (I think/hope), but I’d have to get to know it before taking it into battle or whatever. What dose she feel like when that nice glowy core is ready to start pulsing on me?

    P.S. You’re making me feel old too. When I was young, I was nuts about trains. I think of part of me still is. For a moment, I returned there. Thank you.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    @Pat: Actually, I just read about how our century will disappear in history. it’s in a highly recommended non-fiction book titled Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth by Curt Stager.

    He’s talking about carbon-14 (C-14) radioisotope dating. C-14 decays pretty rapidly, and C-14 dating is only good for about 50,000 years. Thing is, all of our coal and oil is totally depleted in C-14, so when we started flooding the atmosphere with C-14 depleted carbon, in the late 19th Century we made all the organism tissue of that time appear centuries to millenia older than it actually was, if you dated it using the C-14 technique. Then, from the 1940s to the 1960s, they set off a bunch of nuclear blasts in the atmosphere, which massively enriched the air with C-14. Those of us born in the 50s and 60s have so much C-14 in our bodies that, were someone to date us, we look like we’re from about 500 years in the future. However, we’ve continued flooding the atmosphere with depleted carbon as we’ve burned through our fossil fuels, so kids these days look like they’re only from about 200 years in the future, on their radiocarbon dates.

    This is known as the Suess effect, although sadly, it’s not named after that Dr. Suess. Currently, scientists using radiocarbon data know what happened, and know how to correct for the anomalies introduced by technology.

    However, thousands of years in the future, this information will probably be lost, and with it, our century will disappear. Artifacts from World War 2 and before will appear as old as the Pharaohs, while artifacts from the Cold War will appear to be centuries younger than they actually are. As a result, much of the archeological and chronological record of the 20th Century will be hopelessly jumbled and lost to our distant descendents.

    That comment about having a bomber from the Pyramid era is actually quite accurate.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Since I hadn’t read Stager’s book, I asked Jim (who is a working archeologist) what he thought of this premise. He e-mailed me the following reply before running off to a meeting:

      Heteromeles is both right and wrong, from my understanding of radiocarbon dating. While human activity has probably been affecting the amount of C14 in the atmosphere, this is neither a new or unique occurrence. Sunspot activity is actually one of the main causes of fluctuations in C14 levels, creating what Suess (the same one he cites) called “wiggles” in the radiocarbon curve. The wiggles represent changes in atmospheric concentrations of C14, causing the curve to fluctuate up and down. This creates situations where a certain C14 ratio can intercept the curve in more than one place, with each intercept having the same probability of being correct. This is where having other dated materials from a site, like ceramics, comes in handy.

      The fluctuations in the curve were determined by analyzing samples from tree-rings, with the concentration of C14 being determined by taking decadal samples from tree-ring cross-sections, so the concentrations could be matched correctly with absolute dates. This curve is used to calibrate C14 dates, and make them more accurate.

      I can’t say whether or not this information will disappear in the future, but if it does, my guess is that it would be reinvented because archaeoologists quickly became aware of some of the problems inherent in radiocarbon dating, and its likely that future archaeologists (or physicists, more accurately) that reinvented the process would also continually strive to improve it. Having materials from the twentieth century dating the same as say the Egyptian pyramids would set off alarms in an archaeologists head, because the artifact assemblages would be so different and the modern materials would occur in much different contexts in the soil. It may someday be difficult to date materials from our century accurately, but I doubt that the twentieth century and the early Egyptian dynasties would be conflated.

      Hope this is useful and I didn’t go off on too much of a tangent!

      • heteromeles Says:

        Thanks for clarifying that! I should add that Stager’s thinking in the long term. I agree with Jim a few thousand years out, but if we get beyond c. 5000 years (the age of the oldest trees), it may get difficult to construct a dendrochronology that allows reconstruction of a Suess curve for our era. If we get out to 20,000 years in the future, it may be more difficult to differentiate between events that happened “only” a few hundred years apart in our time.

        One way to think of it is to imagine deep future archeologists stumbling across a Smithsonian Institution miraculously preserved by rising seas and anoxic mud. How would the archeologists interpret the dates on surviving items in the collection? It’s reasonable to assume that what survived would be somewhat random, both in origin and in age.

      • Pat McGee Says:

        Hi heteromeles,
        Actually, the dendrochronology record extends back just over 10,000 years in many places. They don’t need an oldest tree; they can join records where they tie in an old piece of lumber with a newer one.

        (I got involved with this about 5 years ago when I found an open source dendrochronology program that I gave as a project to my computer science class. It turns out that they’ve got their own Y2K issue, except it’s a Y10K issue. Years ago, someone designed a common data storage format and only allowed 4 digits for the year.)

        I feel like I’m arguing on both sides of this issue. I understand and agree with your basic point, which I take to be that in the distant future, stuff from our era will have conflicting evidence of dates. But so far, every example someone’s brought up of where that might happen, I think is not a good example.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        I have to wonder if Stager is a radiochronologist. I’m _ not_, but I do understand both the principles and many of the pitfalls of applying them in practice. Even with dendrochronology – which has its own issues over long time periods – as a calibrator, by the time you get out to 1500BP the error bars are already > 5% and widening steadily. IOW, _we_ can’t separate events a few hundred years apart at 20000BP; I see no reason for surprise that that would still obtain 20000 years from now. AAMOF, since we have abandoned many of the practices, like filling our streets with offal and the rubble of discarded structures, that make current archeological practice feasible, it will, at that remove, be impossible to determine which of several different dates should be associated with what event or structure anyway.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Thanks, I hadn’t realized how far back the dendro record goes.

        I’m finding it fun to think about a few things, and not just with Stager’s book.
        –Almost all the excess carbon we’re putting into the air now will eventually be recaptured in rocks (in other words, global warming, bad as it will be, is survivable)
        –there’s a reasonably high probability that our distant descendents will be around to see the next ice age after all the carbon is recaptured. Something recognizably human may last a millions of years into our future.
        –Given that, what happens to cultural artifacts in deep time? So much of science, including archeology, is innately destructive, losing the evidence to gain the data. Can we transmit our knowledge down through the millennia, or do we simply have to accept that, at some point, a set of random fragments (such as plastic beach litter fossilized in a mudstone flod deposit) will be all that the future knows of us?

        It’s fun to think about.

  7. Chad Merkley Says:

    Jane, I like your definition of knowledge as the combination of information and experience. Knowing when a specific piece of information (or technique, or formula, or analysis, etc) is useful or applicable is one of the hardest and most important things we can learn.

    On the subject of trying to reconstruct technology, Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series has many examples. The brief synopsis is that a modern West Virginia town gets transported to Germany in 1632. So the Americans have to take their library records and so forth to reconstruct viable 19th century technology, such as steam engines and repeating weapons, while the Europeans try and develop their own technologies based on what they know is possible from the American examples.

    This series consists of several novels and anthologies by many different authors. The short stories especially address reconstructing technology, such as sewing machines, or radios, and many other things. It’s really quite fascinating.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I’ve heard of Flint’s series but haven’t read it. I had the misconception that it dealt more with fighting and exploring than the actual technological material.

      Your comments interest me. I’ve enjoyed some of Flint’s other works quite a bit!

      • Chad Merkley Says:

        There is quite a bit of fighting–this is Europe in the middle of the Thirty Years War–but the main themes seem to revolve around culture clash and political relationships. For example, the Americans need military protection and support from a larger, stronger polity, which means a monarchy in this setting. But how do reconcile that with democratic ideals and traditions? There’s lots of stuff like that, about compromises and accomodations that everyone in the stories have to make.

        One very appealing element of these stories is the shared universe aspect, where there are dozens of authors who have contributed their expertise and interests, especially in regards to developing the technology. Flint himself focuses on the military tech, but the short stories by various authors have some really cool stuff.

      • Thomas Says:

        in the 1632 series you will find most of the nitty gritty struggling with technology in the short stories and non fiction articles in the anthologies and the Grantville Gazette e-magazine (currently on issue 40 and a new one every other month). There is a whole series of stories on improving paper making, paper bags, plywood, etc and the social changes that starts to bring. Another on sewing machines (which causes massive challanges to the guild system, who can afford what kind of clothes, etc). And one on trying to reinvent radio transmitters and receivers that you can make with “downtime” industry. and a lot more.

        The Novels are more on the Big Picture things such as the major political, military, and cultural conflicts with most of the tech stuff happening off stage so as to not slow down the book. Eric loves seeing and the small picture things in the short stories though and happily appropriates characters and companies and details from the short stories into the mainline novels when usefull. Eric even will snag some of the new authors from the magazine whose work he likes to become co-authors on the main novel lines!

        One thing that will help anyone interest in getting into the 1632 series is Baen’s anti-DRM stance on ebooks and use of free ebooks for promotional purposes (Eric got them to start the Free Library over a decade ago). You can find most of the novels and anthologies on a CD they bound into one of the novels a couple years ago. It had a liberal copying license so is legaly avalable at which has the first 9 novels and 7 anthologies of shorter work DRM Free and in just about any ebook format you could need for your e-reader of choice. you can get the rest of the books and the Grantville Gazette’s from Baen’s own ebook store at very reasonable
        prices at

        And Yes I have been a fan of the series since it first came out in 2000. 😎

  8. Paul Says:

    The first example I read in my early SF reading was something by Andre Norton (maybe “Star Man’s Son,” aka “Daybreak – 2250 AD”), wherein a post-apocalypic explorer has to figure out how to star a car). The movie, “Independence Day” (itself very much like some of the old pulp-magazine SF adventures), simplifies Jane’s very example of learning how to fly a spaceship found in the backyard (or, in this case, probably Roswell). That steam engine lesson certainly gives me new thoughts about the steampunk sub-genre…

  9. heteromeles Says:

    I hit a non-fiction book that might be of interest on this topic: Jan Zalasiewicz’s The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?. Oddly, I heard about it in an old episode of Radiolab that was broadcast today. Synchronicity or something.

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