Locklin on science

The age of steam

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on August 22, 2011

Before computers, before men learned to fly, before the European empires fell apart, there was the age of steam.

The age of steam lives on only in rusted hulks and remnants of its former glory. My own apartment building only recently got rid of a glorious steam boiler dating from the turn of the 20th century (replaced with a more modern steam boiler, sans cool rivets and heavy construction). The old one looked something like this:

Steam power is ridiculous when you give it a moment’s thought. Steam engines work by boiling water to extremely high pressures using whatever heat is available; from burning wood, oil or coal. The pressures are unimaginably enormous: so preposterously huge, that even a tiny invisible leak is capable of cutting a man in half. The huge pressures then either drive some pistons, moving some machinery around, or they explode spectacularly. One of the more famous examples of exploding steam engines was the one on the battleship Maine. This steam engine exploded due to negligence, and conveniently started the Spanish American war, making possible things like “Hearst Avenue” and “Patty Hearst” not to mention, subjects for stupid t-shirts for people who hate their parents.

Lots of energy is wasted heating the water and surrounding machinery with steam engines. Compared to an internal combustion engine, a steam engine will have only a fraction of the potential thermodynamic efficiency. Powering a steam engine with diesel fuel, you’d need 3.5 to 5 times the diesel fuel you’d burn in a direct diesel piston engine (which is up to 30% thermodynamically efficient: about as good as is physically possible with heat engines), even using the most efficient embodiments of steam engines. That’s why we don’t use this sort of piston driven steam engine any more.

The nice thing about steam from an engineering perspective, is you can pump power around in pipes. In an internal combustion engine, you need gears, pulleys, pushrods, transmissions and doodads. In a steam machine, just some pipes, and a piston at the end. If you’re trying to be efficient, this won’t work so well, but if you just need a little power here and there (like, to power a whistle, or some brakes), the steam pipes work like electrical fluids. That’s why there are so many pipes on the outside of an old railroad engine powered by steam.

It’s hard to imagine the whole world worked on steam as recently as the time of our grandparents. Almost all mechanical power came from heat imparted to steam. In those days, most of our technology was made with enormous pieces of steel, forged in giant coal burning steel mills. These mills were so insane, the cities they were in never saw daylight. Steel itself was a sort of miracle; conjured in rites of fire in multi-mile long satanic mills powered by railcars filled with coal. A shining, hard metal, wrenched from the very earth by the force of men’s wills. How insane is an old school steel mill? It is like looking at a picture of hell, made real on earth!

There is something tremendously appealing about this age of technology. In this age, many things were hand made of brass and heavy steel. Machines were heavy contraptions with lots of pipes and gears. There was no dishonesty involving electronics or software. An engineer was a dirty guy with powerful hands, not some silly twat with a ponytail whose idea of exercise is playing world of nerdcraft. If your machinery didn’t work in the age of steam, it could be fixed with a pipe wrench and a blowtorch. Plus, steam powered machines are beautiful. They are beautiful in the same sense that victorian houses are beautiful.

One of the most compelling science fiction images of my youth is from a magazine with paintings of an “alternate future” of steam powered robots. I still find these images stirring and amusing (and please: don’t mention the Crabfu thing -my doctor forbids me to think about things which are that stupid and ugly). They are cool because they evoke modern ideas with technology from times when people had good manners and knew how to wear a a stiff collar: when people believed in heroism and the common decencies. I guess I don’t really care if they drive around in giant robots or M-1 Abrams tanks, but it would be nice if such men still walked the earth. Occasionally I am reminded they do. The giant steam robots are just a reminder of such.

In some ways, the crazy imaginary steam robots are not as insane as what actually was. Men in top-hats designed enormous, clumsy war machines made of preposterously huge chunks of steel; rivets the size of a man’s head. They launched explosive projectiles the size of engine blocks at each other, using primitive explosive powders made out of old cloth and battery acid.

Modern people seem to particularly like aesthetics of the old steam age -doubtless people found it distasteful and dungeon looking back when steam was still important, like, say in the streamlined Art Deco era. “Steampunk” often looks ridiculous, but it’s a hankering after a more honest time, with honest machinery. Does anyone think we’ll one day be nostalgic for … iMacs? I don’t. Postmodern designs are inhumanly abstract, and generally disgusting. Festooning your PC with non functional brass gears and such is preposterous, and a design abomination, but it’s a very human reaction: a longing for a better time. Such steampunk creations remind me of the reliquaries of Germanic barbarians which were festooned with Roman cameos and intaglios.


We modern barbarians can barely understand, let alone manufacture such beautiful contrivances as the Steam Age produced; just as the Germanic barbarians couldn’t make the lovely intaglios the Romans used to make. The Germanic barbarians lacked the civilized spirit of ancient Rome, just as we lack the humane and dignified spirit of the steam age. Like the Germanic barbarians rooting through the ruins of a forgotten civilization for pretty gemstones, we know that the ones who came before us possessed something we presently lack: a worldview, a deeper humanity, and a sense of beauty. So, like the Germanic barbarians, we moderns bedeck our most psychologically precious, but otherwise rude, soulless objects with bits of a forgotten empire.


Contemplate the age of steam the next time you see an old steam vessel in the woods or in the basement somewhere, or some nerd with gears on his cufflinks. That was how humanity carved a living from the earth just a few years ago. Steam was our nuclear power and computer technology combined. It was what separated us from the animals.

12 Responses

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  1. Rod Carvalho said, on August 23, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Does anyone think we’ll one day be nostalgic for … iMacs? I don’t. Postmodern designs are inhumanly abstract, and generally disgusting.

    Which is why I love mechanical computers. The Curta calculator is prettier than any MacBook I have ever seen. Heck, even analog electronic computers made of op-amps are lovely. VLSI is awesome, but I cannot see electrons. There’s great intellectual beauty in electronic design, but there’s no aesthetics.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 23, 2011 at 1:06 am

      You’d figure a few of those “design school” retards that are churned out by the myriad would be able to figure out how to make a computer look like something other than a toilet roll container with a blinking LED on it.

      Curtas are really cool. I should probably buy one while I still can.

  2. Kartik Agaram said, on August 23, 2011 at 12:55 am

    “It’s hard to imagine the whole world worked on steam as recently as the time of our grandparents.”

    I travelled in steam engines until age 15 or so in India. It’s hard to describe how vertiginous it was to go from socialist India to cable television, PCs and cellphones in the span of 10 years.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 23, 2011 at 1:05 am

      I have a picture book from the 70s with the last remaining commercially used steam railways in it. India figured prominently. Y’awl seem to have preserved a lot of the good of the anglosphere: from Cricket to a fondness for Jeeves and Wooster.

      There might still be a steam line operating in Eritrea. I know they built one from old Italian rolling stock.

  3. andronicus beneficus said, on August 23, 2011 at 1:04 am

    “The age of steam lives on only in rusted hulks and remnants of its former glory”. Err, no. Steam lives on in nuclear reactors, many modern ships and countless other devices. I cannot remember my thermo very well but I do seem to remember that steam was and is preferred over internal combustion for many reasons: the main one having to do with energy dissipated in phase change or enthalpy that results in huge efficiencies. I think you’re confusing old riveted big iron with newer metallurgical advances and newer evolved designs with the first design attempts.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 23, 2011 at 1:34 am

      Steam turbines are very efficient (and of course, pervasive) ways of large scale conversation of chemical and nuclear energy into electricity, but only when you can make them very large. They have about as much to do with steam piston engines and the old school firebox boilers as Jaquard looms do with an IBM System-360. Yeah, they both use “steam” -though in a different phase and in a different way, sorta like the latter both used punched cards.

      Diesel engines are more efficient in smaller scale applications, like running a boat. I was amazed that people were still using reciprocating steam engines in cargo ships in the WW-2 era, but they did. I guess the machine tools to make big diesels were better used elsewhere in those days.

      My personal aesthetic favorites: Norwegian Hot Bulb Semidiesels, like the Sabb, Hundested or Bolinder:
      http://www.oldengine.org/members/diesel/Marine/bolinder.htm
      I kind of want a boat, just so I can own one of these badass old motors:

  4. Tschafer said, on August 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Yeah, the Age of Steam is my second favorite era of design, right after the late 50’s-early ’60’s Era (which I can actually remember). Eras of good and bad design seem to come and go, and yeah, we’re going through a bad patch right now. The appeal of “Mad Men” and “Steampunk” (both almost entirely visual) are an indication of a yearning for good design and attitude as much as nostalgia.

    • Scott Locklin said, on August 23, 2011 at 7:33 pm

      Something about the 1970s seemed to suck all the life out of design. Probably it has something to do with the advent of CAD. Though maybe it’s the general cultural decline since then.

      • Tschafer said, on August 24, 2011 at 7:34 pm

        Yes, some things about the ’70s were actually fun (of course, I was young then – naturally it was fun…), but in terms of design, they were just a disaster, and we’ve never really recovered. There was a blip of cool design in the mid-80’s, but it was touched by the dead hand of post-modernism, and never really got off the ground. It might be my imagination, but in the last few years, it seems like there might have been a slight improvement; I guess we’ll see.

  5. David Traxel said, on September 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Very nice thoughtful piece about the invention that changed the world forever by powering the industrial revolution. One of many dreamers of even greater steam achievements was Samuel Pierpont Langley, chief of the Smithsonian Institution in 1898, who achieved some success with a steam powered airplane, enough that T. Roosevelt, ass’t sec of the Navy, convinced Congress to contribute $50,000 to the experiments.
    One small mistake–it was not the steam engine that exploded on the Maine, but the coal [or perhaps a bomb–it is still not totally clear which], that contributed starting the war with Spain.
    For more details about all this see David Traxel’s 1898, The Birth of the American Century.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm

      You mean the boiler? Or was it coal dust somehow? I always thought it was a dead ringer for the boiler, but unless divers have gone down to look at the thing … who knows, really?

      Thanks for the links and comment!

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