Friday, August 19, 2005

Old tech is the best tech

Delaware has been home to the DuPonts for more than 200 years, so they and the company they founded have left their mark on the area, from our corporation friendly laws to their mansions dotting the landscape. I like to call their former homes, YADM's - Yet Another DuPont Mansion. It is really nice that they donated the land because we have an abundance of very nice parks and greenways in the area because of it.

I had the chance last week to go the Hagley Museum, which is the site of the first DuPont company powder works and is where the company started all that time ago. The Hagley Mills are actually several acres along the Brandywine river and contain the mansion that was the first DuPont home and office and all of the gunpowder mills and machine shops. The DuPonts made gunpowder, which was very dangerous, but the company safety policy was in place even then, and they were able to make it safer and more economically than their early competitors.

The mills are on the Brandywine like many other mills were because the Brandywine river provided a ready flow of water with a steep descent over a short distance that could be used to power the mills since water was what they had for energy back then.

My favorite place on the museum grounds is the machine shop. This shop was run back then using water power, and eventually steam power. It is a marvel of early engineering because it is all run from a water turbine and the machines are connected to the power by a series of belts drive from a main drive shaft. Engage the clutch on a machine and the belt moved from a free wheel to one that powered the device. Twist the belt before you loop it and engage that belt and the machine runs in reverse.

They even have a variable speed drill driven by two cones which connect with a belt between them. Belt at one end contacts the thin part of the driving cone with the thick part of the machine cone and the drill runs slow. Move the belt to the other end, thin part of driving cone moving the fat part of the machine cone and it runs faster, with continuous variation in between.

The shop has a drill, lather, grinders and other assorted tools. For demonstration these days they use an electric motor to drive the main shaft. I wish I had more and better pictures of the equipment but the lighting in the room is very poor. Back in the late 1800's when they used this room it was lit only with oil lamps even though it ran overnight shifts. You can imagine how much of a strain that was on the operators. With many lamps in the room they achieved the power of one fluorescent light tube, how many lights do you have in your workshop when you are working? The tour guide also pointed out that the entire room was about four horsepower. How many horsepower was the last drill or saw you purchased? Certainly machine work is much easier and fast in the modern world than back then, but this shop is an achievement in its genuine ingenuity in power transfer and was very modern for its day.

If civilization ever fell, you could go out to this museum, rip out the electric motor, reconnect the water turbine (it is still there) and run an 1800's machine shop. For this reason the Hagley Museum machine shop is on my apocalypse team, and so are the docents that know how to run the place if I can get them.

No comments: