A Day in the Lab

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It was Friday afternoon and Conservator Elsa Sangouard did not say a word; she didn’t have to say anything.  Her smile told the whole story.  Elsa and Gary Paden, the Objects Handler for the USS Monitor Conservation Project, had just successfully removed a beautiful and shiny copper alloy tallow cup from Monitor’s 25-ton steam engine when I walked into the engine treatment tank.  They held the multi-component artifact with pride and examined it closely.  It had the appearance of something Dr. Seuss would have invented.  Two valve handles of different sizes extended from the smooth, round tallow reservoirs.  A smaller drain spigot with a stout nozzle extended from one of the reservoirs.  It looked ornate and stout, fantastical and practical.  Engineers heated tallow or pig fat in these devices.  The liquid fat would then drip into the steam engine’s valve chests, providing critical lubrication.  Surprisingly, Elsa was able to turn one of the valve handles as if it the object was new.  Smiles grew wider on their sweaty and sediment-covered faces.

            They passed the tallow cup to me and I placed it in a plastic container filled with deionized water for safe storage and desalination on a workbench outside of the engine treatment tank.  I labeled the container and lined it up with a dozen similar containers filled with other copper alloy engine components removed during the week.  Conservation Technician Mike Saul walked up to the table with a clipboard and began documenting the condition of each engine component for entry into the artifact database and individual artifact treatment files.  We stared at an amazing assortment of ten oil cups of various sizes removed from the engine’s rock shaft bearings and eccentric arms.  A small drop of oil bubbled to the surface of the water in one container.  “That’s original engine oil from the night the Monitor sank,” I said.  Mike hustled off to grab a glass sample vial so we could collect the oil for later analysis.

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