Last week I took a few minutes to visit the Conservation wet lab to visit Monitor‘s main engine, the first time I had seen it with the tank drained.
Before I say anything about this experience, I ought to say that I love steam engines, have loved them ever since I was a child. Like so much nineteenth century technology, the steam engine seemed to me imaginative, almost pre-scientific (though based on sound science). I don’t know a thing about steam engines, honestly, but I love them because I find them beautiful. Their movements are graceful, their lines and curves are elegant. Their great exposed connecting rods, intricate gearing, the eliptical shapes of the eccentrics, have something of the animate about them. In the extravagence of their movement, they seem improbable as machines, so unlike the completely restrained electrical motor. One can be devoted to them easily.
When I visited the Ericsson vibrating lever engine at Conservation last Thursday, I did not expect to be touched by the experience. After all, I have spent hours looking at plans and drawings of it, answering patrons queries about it, referring people to our copy of B.F. Isherwood’s Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering (with detailed information about the engines and boilers of both Monitor and Merrimack). When I finally saw the engine itself, I think I was actually thunderstruck. Here was the wonderful muscle, the heart as Jeff Johnston said in the Daily Press, of Monitor herself (see the article, http://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-monitor-steam-engine-1210,0,2101784.story)! Beautiful, extravagant, experimental, rash product of John Ericsson’s fervid imagination. The thought that this engine could run again some day, an idea not completely out of the realm of possibility, gives me chills.
The Conservation Blog, at http://www.marinersmuseum.org/blogs/ussmonitorcenter/, will give the reader an excellent understanding of the treatments this engine is undergoing. To understand this engine and appreciate its design and place in history, the Library has a wealth of resources. But to love this engine, a reader need only imagine it in motion.