Slideshow - Victorian Hacking

This summer, David Mindell, a professor of the history of engineering at MIT, traveled to England to lead a tour of Victorian technology--a journey into the fantastical world of Watt, Babbage, Brunel, and other 19th-century hackers

Photo: David Mindell

CONTROL CABIN

These valves and gauges are part of the engine controls on Mallard, the world’s fastest steam-powered locomotive, with a top speed of 202.7 kilometers per hour (126 miles per hour). Built in 1938 by the London and North Eastern Railway, it operated until 1963 and is now on display at the National Railway Museum, in York.

Photo: David Mindell

WONDER WHEELS

The Mallard locomotive has six driving wheels, preceded by four leading wheels and followed by two trailing wheels—a configuration known as 4-6-2, according to the steam-locomotive notation devised in 1900.

Photo: David Mindell

IRON HEART

Sir Daniel Gooch, Great Western Railway’s first locomotive superintendent—who went on to become its chairman in 1865—designed the Iron Duke class of locomotives in 1847 to pull express trains from London to Bristol. This National Railway Museum replica was built in 1981 as part of the Great Western Railway 150th-anniversary celebrations.

Photo: David Mindell

MACHINE MAKER

At the National Railway Museum, a statue of George Stephenson, inventor of the practical locomotive, overlooks a replica of the Iron Duke locomotive designed by Gooch for Great Western Railway.

Photo: David Mindell

DO-IT-YOURSELF MODELS

The largest collection of railroad models scratch-made by one person—a lifetime of work—is on display at the National Railway Museum.

Photo: David Mindell

PAST AND PRESENT

At the locomotive restoration shop of the National Railway Museum, engineers and curators try to recover the tacit understanding of Victorian steam engineering as they restore old locomotives.

Photo: David Mindell

AN ENGINEER’S MIND

The greatest of the Victorian engineers—in accomplishment, ambition, and failure—Isambard Kingdom Brunel brought a modernist’s vision to his great work, the Great Western Railway, to connect London to Bristol with high-speed passenger traffic. He was an accomplished draftsman and frequently included himself in his engineering drawings, as shown in this sketch from one of his notebooks at the University of Bristol.

Photo: David Mindell

TERMINUS

Designed by Brunel, London’s Paddington Station opened in 1854 and still operates to this day. From Bristol one could board his great ocean liner, the SS Great Britain , and sail for New York. Brunel modeled Paddington Station’s light iron structure on another great London structure, the Crystal Palace. Queen Victoria took her first railway journey to this station.

Photo: David Mindell

STEAMER

Brunel’s Great Britain was the first steam powered, propeller-driven ocean liner. Just steps from the Bristol end of the Great Western Railway, the Great Britain began sailing to New York in 1844. (Brunel’s earlier ship, the SS Great Western , first crossed the Atlantic by steam in 1838.)

Photo: David Mindell

ELEGANT LINER

Great Britain’s main cabin preserves some of its original appearance: steam-powered Victorian splendor on the high seas.

Photo: David Mindell

STEAMING AND SPINNING

A beautiful replica of Great Britain’s drive gear runs today at the ship’s museum at Bristol’s docks.

Photo: David Mindell

FORWARD THRUST

Great Britain’s propeller was similar in appearance to the one Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson built for the USS Monitor about 15 years later.

Photo: David Mindell

HARD COPY

British mathematician Charles Babbage had a vision of mechanical computation that was only partially realized in his day. His difference engines were analogous to modern mechanical adding machines. Babbage never completed them, but the Science Museum, in London, built a working version of his Difference Engine No. 2 in 1991. It even includes a printer that Babbage designed to automatically generate mathematical tables.

Photo: David Mindell

HEAVY MATH

The working version of the Difference Engine No. 2, built by the Science Museum, weighs some 2 metric tons and has thousands of mechanical parts, such as this intricate driving gear.

Photo: David Mindell

CRANK TO COMPUTE

The Difference Engine No. 2 was a human-powered machine—it ran when an operator cranked a handle—but Babbage imagined that steam engines could one day replace the cranks. Had Babbage been able to realize his vision, there might have been an information age in the Victorian era, powered by steam instead of electricity.

Photo: David Mindell

UNDER CONTROL

Among James Watt’s innovations in steam technology was the use of a control device called a centrifugal governor, the first modern feedback mechanism. Steam engines like this, on display at the Science Museum, relied on a flyball governor to regulate their speed. When the speed goes up, the governor spins and the balls fly outward, lifting a linkage that reduces the amount of steam coming into the cylinder, thus slowing the engine.

Photo: David Mindell

MASTERS OF STEAM

These valve gears are part of the oldest rotating steam engine in the world, built by Watt in 1788. The engine, now housed at the Science Museum, was used to run Matthew Boulton’s Soho factory in Birmingham. Boulton, one of the greatest industrialists of his time, realized that steam engines could be used for more than pumping out mines—they could actually power factories. These valves open and close to let steam in and out of the cylinder and the condenser.

Photo: David Mindell

IRON ICON

Steam-engine governors were familiar icons of mechanical motion in the Victorian era—and they still are at Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge Gorge, in western England.

Photo: David Mindell

FLYING BALLS

A centrifugal governor in operation is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester.

Photo: David Mindell

INGENIOUS

The parallel motion device, a mechanical linkage used in steam engines, was one of Watt’s great inventions. It allows the rocking (”walking”) beam to pivot while keeping the linkage to the piston absolutely vertical, as demonstrated by this engine at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Photo: David Mindell

FLUFF AND FINERY

Textiles were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. All that Victorian finery came from mechanized mills spinning machines like these, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Photo: David Mindell

MAN AND MACHINE

These valves are part of an engine built by Watt and Boulton in 1820 and still running today at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, outside of London. A human operator works the valves, manually controlling the flow of steam to get the engine started. Once sufficient vacuum is built up in the condenser, the operator throws a valve and the engine becomes self acting.

Photo: David Mindell

CLASSIC CONTRAPTION

Built in 1867, the Dancers End engine at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum was named after the Dancers End village, north of London, where it was used to pump water from a well. When do you see Doric columns on industrial equipment today?

Photo: David Mindell

PIPE MAZE

This valve gear is part of another engine at the Kew, the Maudslay engine. Built in 1838 by the firm of famed machinist Henry Maudslay, it’s a cathedral of a mechanism.

Photo: David Mindell

IN MOTION

The Kew’s Watt and Boulton engine is three stories tall and can pump more than 8 million liters (2.5 million gallons) per day. To see it all running is like watching a mechanical ballet.

About the Author

David A. Mindell is a professor of the history of engineering and manufacturing at MIT. His research interests include the history of automation in the military, the history of electronics and computing, theories of engineering systems, deep-ocean robotic archaeology, and the history of space exploration. His most recent book is Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight (MIT Press, 2008).

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