An Oldie, But a Goodie

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Engine Forward
Monitor’s main steam engine is perched on its treatment rig within the 35,000-gallon treatment tank. The valve chests are visible on the lower left and lower right, reversing gear eccentrics are positioned dead center and top, and the engine’s cast iron support bed spans the entire top portion of this picture.

This week we’ve been very fortunate to spend some quality time with one of our oldest and dearest friends: USS Monitor‘s vibrating side lever steam engine. Much like our favorite ironclad, this salty lady is over 150 years old but keeps looking better every year.

We took the following pictures on Monday. Please remember that the engine currently sits upside down in the treatment tank.   Read more

Powerful New Evidence Against Anthracite Coal

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Coal 1

USS Monitor‘s engines were powered by steam generated by boiling water. Water was boiled by burning massive quantities of anthracite coal. Tons and tons of anthracite coal. Even when Monitor was under tow by the Rhode Island during her last hours afloat, coal was the driving force behind the movement of both vessels. Here is a picture of a small piece of anthracite coal excavated from the interior of Monitor‘s gun turret in 2002.

Original letters penned by crew members of Monitor and modern-day books describe loads of coal as fuel. Archaeologists confirmed this information with their discoveries of coal at the wreck site within the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. But have archivists, historians, and archaeologists led us astray?   Read more

Shifting Weight with the Engine

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This past week the 30,000 gallon tank containing Monitor’s steam engine was drained for a key milestone in the conservation of this unique artifact. The purpose for the tank drain was the installation of a new support system under the engine that will enable the eventual disassembly of  the object.  Up to this week, the engine which weighs approximately 25 tons, had been suspended off the ground from a massive I-bean supported on large steel posts. In the images below, you can see the engine before and after recent deconcretion efforts suspended from the I-beam.  

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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.   Read more

Completely Floored

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Last week, treatment began on a large fragment of cast iron flooring from  Monitor‘s engine room. The fragment was discovered in situ during large scale deconcretion efforts on the engine in December 2010.  In the images below, you can see the fragment in place on the engine being supported with straps while concretion was removed to separate it from the engine bed.

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