A Visit to the Pratt University Steam Plant
December 8, 2009 7:33 PM   Subscribe

A Visit to the Pratt University Steam Plant. Antique electrical and mechanical. Brass, copper, iron, oak and stone. It smells of warm oil.
posted by jjray (29 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cory?... Cory?

Quick, get the smelling salts.
posted by davebush at 7:38 PM on December 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


I understand that we're all going to get our best "lolsteampunk" wisecracks ready, and that's fine, I guess.

But you know what? All that aside, this is great. Steam-powered generator! In goddamn Brooklyn! That's crazy!

also that dude has a pretty righteous beard.
posted by pts at 7:45 PM on December 8, 2009


That's not an old steam plant. This is an old steam plant.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:47 PM on December 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


That is just incredible and a photgrapher toystore! Thanks for the visit...
posted by ara and spirit at 8:03 PM on December 8, 2009


That's pretty awesome. I'm going to have to figure out a way to make it there next time I'm going through NYC.

I assume they're using city steam, since I didn't see anything noted about boilers. But I thought that ConEd Steam was only in Manhattan, not Brooklyn; is there district heat service in other boroughs as well?

It reminds me of my father's office when I was a kid. Their building, which was getting on 100 years old even then, had a great old steam fire pump in the basement. It wasn't hooked up to anything (on the water-pump side) that I recall, but they had it hooked up to the building's steam heat line on the other, and the building engineer — who I guess must have maintained the thing — would occasionally turn it on if my father brought us by during the winter. It was a really beautiful machine, all brass and painted iron. And it made it perfectly obvious how a steam engine worked; it started up slowly, so you could watch the piston start to move, and see how the valve was driven out of sync with the connecting rod just so. I remember being just totally blown away by the sheer cleverness of it, how everything fit together.

It's probably long gone by now — the company got bought only a few years later by a conglomerate who basically just busted it out and then sold the corpse, including the building. I think it got turned into condos or something. I'd like to imagine that someone saved the steam pump, but — given that it must have weighed several tons — I doubt it. Probably it just got cut up for the brass.

Anyway, it always amazes me that it survived as long as it did, and makes me wonder how much other neat stuff is sitting around, squirreled away and kept working by people who for whatever reason just think it's neat to have around.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:24 PM on December 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


I understand that we're all going to get our best "lolsteampunk" wisecracks ready, and that's fine, I guess.

But you know what? All that aside, this is great.


Yeah, it's great.

And as an actual real thing that isn't powered by dragons inside or some bullshit the top-hats and goggles crowd really shouldn't be laying claim to it. It's too much for them. They might learn an engineering principle or something. They should stick to glueing cogs and shit to the outside of MP3 players and claiming that they now know how they "work".
posted by Artw at 8:28 PM on December 8, 2009 [11 favorites]


I live about three blocks from this place.

The guy who maintains all the whistles has been building his collection for years -- they've been salvaged from old steamships, locomotives, and the like....

On New Year's Eve, he drags them all out and puts them on the Pratt Campus quad, and spends the couple hours leading up to midnight playing a steam carrillion -- and then at midnight, he sounds off each and every one of the other whistles all at once. Then he just leaves them set up for a while, leaving the strings set up in reach of the public so you can take turns sounding off the whistles yourself.

I did this last New Year's Eve; I think I sounded off the whistle to the S.S. Normandie twice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 PM on December 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


I love the smell of old grease.

I'm trying to figure out what is in this picture. On the bottom there is a piston driven engine, then the next one toward the back of the picture looks like a (radial?) steam turbine, and in the very back it looks like maybe a diesel engine? And finally, Tony the Tiger!
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:03 PM on December 8, 2009


That's sweet.
posted by phrontist at 9:07 PM on December 8, 2009


ArgentCorvid: the Tony the Tiger may be because the guy who runs the old steam boiler also takes in a few stray cats. If you go to Pratt, the engine is only open to the public a couple times a year, and the rest of the time you can only peep in at it through a glass door -- and there are signs on the door asking you not to tap on the glass because you'll spook the cats.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:31 PM on December 8, 2009


this place is a fantastic example of this bygone era when men were men and machines were iron and brass
That's it! I've finally realised what it is about the steampunk aesthetic that alienates me. It's the essential fantasy that this kind of industrial beauty comes without human cost, and that people who work with it can expect to remain undamaged.

To give an example: my best friend's dad when I was a kid was a journalist and cartoonist, but he'd worked on the printing plants as a young man. He had only four full fingers left out of ten, with the remaining fingers and both palms covered in scar tissue, as the result of having both of his hands caught in an offset printing press---just the kind of exposed ink-greasy brutally beautiful kind of appliance the steampunkists would love---and he always tried to impress on both of us just how dangerous powerful machines are, and how dangerous the kind of blue-collar work that involves machinery is. Yes industry is cool but industrial machines are not necessarily designed not to maim and kill their workers painfully.
And all the machinery is exposed!!! (I want to SEE the machine! That's why my hot rod has no hood.)
Yes, it's beautiful. No question. But the industrial design of the late 19th early 20th century was a beautiful tradeoff made in human blood.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:44 PM on December 8, 2009 [6 favorites]


And as an actual real thing that isn't powered by dragons inside or some bullshit the top-hats and goggles crowd really shouldn't be laying claim to it. It's too much for them. They might learn an engineering principle or something. They should stick to glueing cogs and shit to the outside of MP3 players and claiming that they now know how they "work".

Wow, Artw, who in the world are you referring to? I've never met a single admirer of steampunk design that claims the anachronistic gearings affect "how it works". It's a design trend.

Your claim is like claiming that environmentalists believe a green-painted car is better for the environment: only an outside hater would believe they believe that.

Most steampunk enthusiasts I know are employed in technical professions.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:14 PM on December 8, 2009


Wait, wait. He maintains a steam engine and takes in stray cats?

This dude just shot into the running for my favorite human in the world.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:24 PM on December 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


ArgentCorvid: The rear unit is most probably a diesel engine. I can't determine what it is driving. The middle unit might be a pump rather than a generator.

I would love to see more pictures, taken by a real steam fan. These pictures don't show valve gear detail, or builders plates, etc.

Great post, none the less.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 12:12 AM on December 9, 2009


I did a little "Googleing". The rear unit is a WWII surplus diesel which were used to replace the steam powered generators.

The middle unit is as you suspected, a steam turbine drive generator set. Built by GE, using a Corliss design.

The front units were built by Ames Iron Works.

All the above from an ASME report circa 1977.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 12:41 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks. The wonderful thing about simple electro-mechanical systems is that you can maintain them almost indefinitely with access to a machine shop and basic feed stocks.

You cannot say the same thing for most equipment that uses printed circuit boards or microprocessors.
posted by wuwei at 12:54 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I went to school at Pratt - in addition to what EmpressCallipygos posted about NYE-whistle blowing, various whistles are also blown during graduation, which can be humorous due to the crowds standing nearby. Also, I didn't rtfa, but around campus the word was that Pratt made most of it's own electricity; essentially, we were off the NYC grid. Oh, the elevator in the Main Building is powered by the steam that the plant produces as well. Now that I'm officially caught up in rambling incoherence about ye olde school daze, the plant manager's wife worked for a long time in the Registrar's office.

Oh, and to be a pedant - it's Pratt Institute, not Pratt University.
posted by jivadravya at 2:36 AM on December 9, 2009


One of the most exciting things I've experienced was going into the steam engine room of the SS Jeremiah O'Brien during Mechanicrawl 02008, in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Their staff warmed up the engine to run that day, and the multi-level metal room was hot and loud and oily and full of people and pounding machinery and complicated tubes and dripping things. You could see the fires in the huge boilers. Some old veterans stood around to answer questions about how it worked. (Standing in line, I heard somebody wonder whether the event mentioned to their insurers that they'd be putting hundreds of people right next to hugely powerful and mostly-unshielded machines in a room that's only accessible via metal stairs.) I think most of the visitors, including me, could have stayed in the room for hours if it wasn't so warm and humid.

This engine is on a scale that's really hard to convey in photos, but the Engine Room Panoramas on this galleries page are good (and here are some photos on Flickr). If you get a chance to visit the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, even if the engine isn't running, I recommend it.
posted by dreamyshade at 3:27 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Very cool. I had an uncle (kind of) who used to build model steam engines. He had a replica steam locomotive in his study that he built himself in his basement and which was accurate down to the inch. The steam engine in it actually worked and the wheels turned. This always amazed me as a kid as this was just a hobby (obsession?). It's not like he was a professional machinist or anything. Apparently it was a fairly popular hobby. This obsession with steam, it goes all the way back.
posted by caddis at 4:16 AM on December 9, 2009


You can hear the voice of these machines in a story from 1894: H. G. Wells's The Lord of the Dynamos. Also, its over-the-top racism is a reminder that the Victorian era wasn't all top hats and goggles.
posted by drdanger at 4:40 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I spent many hours of my youth contemplating this steam engine, although the room didn't seem as shiny and well-kept as it appears to be now from these photographs. Thanks for the post, jjray. (A nice post could be done on Pratt's Tiffany library, as well.)
posted by Faze at 4:58 AM on December 9, 2009


I don't care if it's steampunk, or if it's not steampunk, or if steampunk is old and played out, or if it's still the new hotness, or if I can write 'steampunk' only one more time before it loses all contextual meaning.

This building is awesome.
posted by Spatch at 6:27 AM on December 9, 2009


Went to school here and it was one of those things you took for granted. Maybe I'll swing by this year's New Year's whistle event.
posted by yeti at 6:57 AM on December 9, 2009


When I was 13 or so, my father had a job at a small college in the Midwest, as an electrician. His shop was in the physical plant, and to get there you had to walk between the two rather large boilers which supplied steam for heat to the entire campus. One day he took me aside to the rear of one of those, showed me a port into the back of it about 2 inches around and told me to look into it.

I was hooked as soon as I saw the fire shooting from the burners into the firebox.

There is something very compelling about the idea of a flame measuring 4 feet around and perhaps 8 feet long contained in a box, the rumbling of the machinery and pumps feeding it, and the feel of the steam being made. There's a low rumble you can feel in your chest, a combination of combustion, heat transfer, and the air flow through the firebox.

Later in life I had the privilege of tending boilers on a Navy ship much like the Jeremiah O'Brien, and it is hard to find words to describe what one of those things feels and sounds like when the steam plant is lit off, and making the thing move. We had two boilers for a single engine, and it took a minimum of 7 people working together to make it run. Nearly all of it was manually operated, using valves you opened to operate feed and fuel oil pumps, and forced draft blowers to push air into the firebox. The sound all this made together was literally deafening, and entering this space was like going into another world where the only thing that mattered was the fire. We were there only to feed it, tend to its needs, and keep it happy. In return it made us go, kept us warm, made fresh water, kept the lights on. If we didn't keep it happy, it let us know, and a lack of respect for its power could literally kill us.

The burnerman was at the center of this universe. He lit the fires when needed, and made them bigger or smaller depending on how much power was signaled for. Next to him stood the blowerman, whose sole aim was to feed just enough air to keep things going properly, using a handwheel above his head that controlled two forced draft blowers that made a sound not unlike a jet engine at full tilt. A periscope at eye level allowed him to see the exhaust coming out of the stack; white meant too much air, black meant not enough. A "messenger" to keep feedwater and fuel pumps going, to keep an eye on everything else, and to open or close valves in remote locations. In the center, coordinating both crews, the Top Watch.

All this accomplished in 125 degree comfort, stripped to the waist when we could get away with it, at a sound level exceeding any rock concert I have ever seen. Steampunk? Hell, I guess we were steampunks...
posted by cybrcamper at 7:27 AM on December 9, 2009 [10 favorites]


To give an example: my best friend's dad when I was a kid was a journalist and cartoonist, but he'd worked on the printing plants as a young man. He had only four full fingers left out of ten, with the remaining fingers and both palms covered in scar tissue, as the result of having both of his hands caught in an offset printing press

When I was in college my parents moved to West Texas on an interim job there. I needed a summer job, but because they were so far away I wasn't able to get there from school to pound the pavement so my dad asked some of his cronies for positions. He found two possibilities, working on a beer truck or working on a "pulling rig" in the "oil patch". Apparently the pulling rig was the entry level oil patch job and a minor jump in oil prices had gotten the oil fields going again.

When I arrived from school to begin the summer we went to my father's church where all the old oil workers (roughnecks) had heard I was going to be on a pulling rig. They all gathered around me after church to size me up and I obliged their good natured ribbing. One old guy held up his stumpy hands full of partial fingers, stubs, and plain old gaps (I don't think he had an intact finger in the lot) and announced, "well boy, you best choose now." "Choose what?" I enquired, to much laughter, "Which finger, son! Everybody loses a finger on their first year on the rig, boy. Most folks are smart enough not to lose another one, so I guess that says something about me!" Again, much laughter. Then they all held up their hands and sure enough there was at least one finger in ten gone on each man.

After church my dad asked, "do you know who that old guy was?" "No" "Well, he owns the company you'll work for. The last priest they had in this church he flew to Norway to bless his new offshore rig. President Bush (41) calls him sir."

My mother found out about the conversation and as my day on the rig grew closer she began becoming mor affectionate, wanting to hold my hand often, and also began looking at my father with the look I usually got. I ended up on the beer truck.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:36 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Then they all held up their hands and sure enough there was at least one finger in ten gone on each man.


Just for the record, I should probably state that I have all my fingers, and they work just fine, thanks. I don't recall anyone in the fireroom ever having anything happen like that, despite working extensively around revolving parts and an exposed propeller shaft running through our space measuring about 30 inches across; I have a feeling it comes from being careful about everything you do all the time down there, because you could kill yourself and everyone around you if you weren't. Break a live steam line holding 655 psi steam, superheated to about 700 degrees F, and everyone dies from being boiled to death - an idea like that tends to make an impression on you. We were taught to be very careful at all times.

Also, machinery like that is designed, built, and its operation and maintenance performed and overseen by engineers, who tend to think in terms of procedures and operations instead of just getting something done. Even such a thing as cleaning the bilge was done as a procedure, instead of a chore to be done. Lots of cursing during the procedure, but still carefully. Because if you slip and get caught up in that 30" prop shaft running at 100 rpm, it'll take your whole arm off.
posted by cybrcamper at 8:59 AM on December 9, 2009


Cory?... Cory?
Quick, get the smelling salts.


And something to mop up the jizz! My JAW is DROPPING! I have a BONER THAT COULD CUT GLASS!
posted by Ratio at 11:21 AM on December 9, 2009


> That's it! I've finally realised what it is about the steampunk aesthetic that alienates me. It's the essential fantasy that this kind of industrial beauty comes without human cost, and that people who work with it can expect to remain undamaged.

So "steampunk" is to hipsters what "traditional values" are to the christian right? Nostalgia for something that really never was?
posted by Decimask at 4:55 PM on December 9, 2009


They should stick to glueing cogs and shit to the outside of MP3 players and claiming that they now know how they "work".

strawman
posted by DU at 5:41 PM on December 9, 2009


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