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A Day in the Lab

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.

A few minutes later, Assistant Conservator Will Hoffman stepped out of the tank and trudged across the lab leaving iron-stained boot marks on the lab floor. He was carrying something round and heavy, but I couldn’t identify what he was cradling in his muddy arms. “Here’s the wheel that controlled the engine’s steam throttle. I guess I’m the first person to turn this wheel since the ironclad sank back in ’62,” Will said as he reverently placed the copper alloy wheel in a yet another storage container. “It’s pretty heavy. I’m guessing it weighs about 25 pounds.” The wheel was clearly identifiable under a very thin layer of hard concretion, barnacles, and shell. A brass knob extended up from the wheel, likely to make operation of the wheel much easier. Will spent four hours removing the wheel from its iron axle on the front of the engine.

I huddled with Senior Conservator Eric Nordgren later in the afternoon to review results of the X-ray fluorescence (XRF) study conducted on the engine’s various surfaces. The handheld XRF unit that we received on temporary loan is capable of accurately determining the material composition of a wide variety of materials. “Dave, you won’t believe what Elsa and I discovered with the XRF,” Eric said. This statement immediately grabbed my attention. “We detected traces of paint-based substances. Now we have a lead and barium ‘fingerprint’ for the areas which still have original paint residue on them!” This was huge news. We had been carefully searching for visible remnants of original paint on artifacts within the Monitor Collection since 2001, but had minimal success – until now. Eric then pointed out the areas they analyzed with the XRF and very subtle color differences were visible to the naked eye. I looked at Eric and said, “This XRF is a game changer. Think of all the things we can learn about these materials if we owned one of these.” The wheels in Eric’s head started spinning as he reeled off a laundry list of artifacts to analyze with an XRF. I think I even saw smoke pouring from his ears.

I was amazed at how much we accomplished in the engine tank over the course of the week. We drained the 35,000 gallon engine tank Monday morning and began work in the tank after lunch. We worked until 5:00pm, ran sprinklers on the engine to keep it wet overnight, then hopped back into the engine tank the following morning. We repeated this process during the week and used a combination of mechanical and pneumatic tools, as well as lots of sweat and elbow grease. Our primary goals were to remove copper alloy components from the engine’s iron body for separate treatment and to make preparations for leveling and re-supporting the engine to facilitate additional cleaning and future disassembly. We also wanted to make good use of the XRF before our loan expired. Check, check, and check.

Visitors gathered and peered through the viewing windows that reveal the inner workings of the lab. They stared with interest as we removed our equipment from the engine tank and prepared to fill it with treatment solution for the remainder of the summer. Conservation Assistant Tina Gutshall waived at the group of onlookers and they waived back with excitement. That simple interaction reminded us of the importance of the Monitor Conservation Project and our aim to share the ironclad’s story with local, national, and international audiences. Tina said, “Museum visitors are in for a rare treat when we drain the turret tank this summer!”

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