This article discusses how some young engineers, fabricators, machinists, artists, and plumbers are helping revive old steam engines for art and archaeology's sake. The volunteers at Kinetic Steam Works labor to recondition steam engines that will power kinetic artistic installations. Since its inception, the collective has restored a steamship and sent it down the Hudson River as part of an artistic excursion. It has created and demonstrated a Baker fan—originally used to test the horsepower that a steam engine generated. Similarly, William Gould, a design consultant in San Diego is also trying to revive old steam engines. With help from original blueprints and SolidWorks computer-aided design software, he has detailed an 1879 Mason Bogie locomotive to discover exactly how it operated, something historians could not quite determine. Photoshop software allowed him to exactly match the train's color scheme based on a few paint chips from an original model.
In Oakland, Calif, a motley band of young engineers, fabricators, machinists, artists, plumbers, and others gathers Wednesday nights in service of a shared love: steam. Hammers clang and sparks fly above gentle verbal sparring as the volunteers who make up Kinetic Steam Works labor to recondition steam engines, which will power what director Zachary Rukstela has called kinetic artistic installations. Among its projects since its inception four years ago, the collective has restored a steamship and sent it down the Hudson River as part of an artistic excursion. It has created and demonstrated a Baker fan-originally used to test the horsepower that a steam engine generated.
Meanwhile, farther down the coast in San Diego, William Gould is perched in front of his home computer recreating in exact engineering detail and color the 1879 Mason Bogie locomotive.
At first blush, the activities may not seem too closely related. But Gould and the Kinetic Steam Works crew are bent on unearthing and documenting the dimly remembered recent past. They’ve turned to today’s engineering techniques to help their efforts. These designers devote their free time to their fascination with a not so long-gone technology. And they’re bent on preserving it.
"If you think about it, the steam engine was the beginning of the end. It turned man into an operator and not a tender, so to speak," said Andrew O’Keefe, a Kinetic Steam Works volunteer. "And with the advent of steam came other fuels and the ability to change the land at a rate unseen. It was an interesting transmutation to where we are today." O’Keefe earns his living as an independent contractor fabricating metal works for film and theater sets. He lends his expertise to Kinetic Steam Works’ projects.
Archaeology as Art
Gould, a design consultant on medical devices, consumer products, and test fixtures, uses CAD technology to recreate in painstaking detail engineered objects from years past. In the process, he’s become an industrial archaeologist and an artist in his own right.
Though archaeology is often thought of as an examination of our distant past, the British changed the definition of the term shortly after World War 11.
"That’s when they realized the extent of what they’d lost in the war," Gould said. He’s a member of the Society of Industrial Archaeology, founded in 1977 and headquartered at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich.
Gould unearths old blueprints. He found a high school textbook from the 1880s for industrial design students filled with hand-drawn models, for example. He rebuilds the blueprints on his home computer with computer-aided design software.
"1 have a life-long passion for the superb design and craftsmanship by those who have come before us, and the development of technology that has led us into the 21st century," Gould said.
With help from original blueprints and SolidWorks CAD software he’s detailed an 1879 Mason Bogie locomotive to discover exactly how it operated, something historians couldn’t quite determine. Photoshop software allowed him to exactly match the train’s color scheme based on a few paint chips from an original model.
Built by the Mason Locomotive Works, the colorful Mason Bogie is considered by many train buffs to be one of the most beautiful locomotives ever built. It’s often dubbed the Swiss watch of trains, Gouldsaid. The only surviving real world Mason Bogie-a much earlier, different style from Gould’s model-is maintained in mint condition at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Like a museum curator, Gould seeks to recreate the elegance and beauty of a time, not so long ago, when an engineered object could be a thing of wonder and beauty.
"So much today is designed to be thrown away," he said. "In the past, many things were flat or round and machined by hand. These were simple designs, almost elegant in their beauty-and made by hand."
And worth preserving digitally, said Gould, who has recently opened a virtual museum for technology at www.gouldstudios.com. His online museum is filled with historically accurate cyber models and faithful recreations of artifacts that no longer exist.
"Unfortunately, so many important objects have been lost to time or neglect, or often exist only in inventors’ notebooks," Gould said. "It’s my goal to save them for future generations."
Artists and Engineers
And in a certain way that’s the goal too of the members of the Kinetic Steam Works collective.
Rukstela told us, "During the day, I’m a freelance engineering project manager." He manages projects as an avocation, too.
"We work on stuff that already exists," Rukstela said.
"We’re not trying to create new objects. Mostly, we’re taking systems already designed and proven 150 years ago, and beautifying them a little."
The volunteer crew usually partners with artists who want to produce what Rukstela terms kinetic art that just so happens to involve steam engines. The group is also now building its own in-house pieces. Along the way, the organization has brought together like-minded people traditionally separated by a generation gap. Older engineers and younger engineers often share an interest in studying and preserving technologies like steam, but they rarely collaborate on it.
"A lot of that disconnect is because groups tend to be isolated. Old guys who work on steam equipment don’t have crossover with young warehouse rats," Rukstela said.
He hopes that his group will be able to attract some older engineers.
"I simply thought 1’d try using vintage equipment to run kinetic art," he said. "I didn’t really know if it was going to work or. where it was going or anything, but it turned out the idea caught on."
The collective kicked off four years ago with a restored 1920 Case tractor engine named Hortense. That engine is still the heart of the organization, but is feeling a little neglected right now as volunteers have moved on to other works, O’Keefe said.
For instance, they’re now at work on a steam-powered carousel designed by Jamie Vaida, an artist who does installations and sculptural and functional works. Riders will perch atop metal butterflies, spiders, ant, lions, moths, and grasshoppers. Another project called the Moveable Type Steam Press, uses the treads of steam powered tractors to make imprints on ground surfaces such as sand. The treads are designed to make prints of words or images.
Last year, the collective garnered attention for the Althea, a steamboat that it restored and sent down the Hudson river from Troy, NY., to Queens as part of an exhibition spearheaded by the artist Swoon. It was part performance art and part art exhibit. Althea was one of seven vessels in a flotilla, each powered by a recycled engine.
Regardless of the project at hand, for O’Keefe, who is in his thirties, the simplest joy is introducing an even younger generation to steam and getting a reaction from the older generation. For instance, the collective recently featured its 1917 Case tractor engine in an Independence Day parade in Piedmont, Calif.
"Kids get so excited," O’Keefe said. "If you’re in Indiana on July Fourth you can see 50 of those engines, but in an urban environment like Oakland most people have never seen anything like that.
"If you stand there and look at the drive train or any of the mechanisms on top of a steam tractor, it’s mesmerizing," he said. It also introduces young, potential engineers to the joys of steam engines.
Practicing engineers understand the allure as well. They’ve given their nod of approval to Kinetic Steam Works’ creations, O’Keefe said.
"A lot of times we’ve gotten engineers and fabricators that say, ’I’m so glad someone like you, who wouldn’t normally be interested in this, is keeping it going in their own way,’ " he said.
He’s found a certain irony in young people such as himself and other collective members who have rediscovered steam. The pairing of youth and technology changed the Internet from a specialized military and government domain into a universal service. It also originally propelled steam power to popularity, O’Keefe said
"When we got started on these projects, we realized that a lot of the people who were working to make these machines exist during the early times of the Industrial Revolution were in their teens and twenties," he said.
"It was all new and wide open, just like the tech revolution we recently witnessed. It takes people who are thinking outside of the box to make things happen; people stuck in their ways don’t make new things happen,"he added. "That’s my philosophy anyway."
Drafting the Designed
O’Keefe and his friends are products of the Internet and technology revolution as well. In their work at Kinetic Steam Works they’ve found a way to marry the old and the new, when it comes to drafting and designing the steam engines.
O’Keefe chooses to draft Kinetic Steam Works’ projects in the 2-D AutoCAD program because it streamlines design but still feels akin to old-style design. It even displays views as if on a drafting board, he said.
"I learned to think about objects by hand drafting and this CAD program lets me think like that, but it takes less time,:’ he said. "If I have time to, I’d do it by hand AutoCAD looks like a drafting board and I can treat it like one."
Though he sometimes dabbles with three-dimensional CAD programs, he still finds himself returning to two-dimensional digital methods.
"The 3-D programs are more about creating your part from a basic shape," O’Keefe said. "But I want to draw the lines and see the computer screen as if it’s a drafting board."
Gould, who recreated the Mason Bogie locomotive in SolidWorks, also uses that program for much of his industrial archaeology work. He also uses a rendering application called hyperShot from Bunkspeed Inc. According to Gould, 3-D design software is a necessary tool to give shape to his art.
"Although CAD has redefined the notion of craftsmanship, CAD is a powerful tool to recreate objects that have disappeared or exist only in a would-be inventor’s sketches," Gould said.
The folks at Kinetic Steam Works say software can speed repurposing and bringing back to use the old steam engines they so admire. So in this way, young and old technologies are united in defining and keeping alive the artistry of the engineered past.