Steam Locomotive

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 13th, 2013

Technology 101

The Steam Locomotive was one of the Few Technologies that wasn’t replaced by a Superior Technology 

Man first used stone tools about two and a half million years ago.  We first controlled fire for our use about a million years ago.  We first domesticated animals and began farming a little over 10,000 years ago.  The Egyptians were moving goods by boats some 5,000 years ago.  The Greeks and Romans first used the water wheel for power about 2,500 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago.  James Watt improved the steam engine about 230 years ago.  England introduced the first steam locomotive into rail service about 210 years ago. 

In the first half of the 1800s the United States started building its railroads.  Helping the North to win the Civil War.  And completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  By 1890 there were about 130,000 miles of track crisscrossing the United States.  With the stream locomotives growing faster.  And more powerful.  These massive marvels of engineering helped the United States to become the number one economic power in the world.  As her vast resources and manufacturing centers were all connected by rail.  These powerful steam locomotives raced people across the continent.  And pulled ever longer—and heavier—freight trains.

We built bigger and bigger steam locomotives.  That had the power to pull freight across mountains.  To race across the Great Plains.  And into our cities.  With the chugging sound and the mournful steam whistle filling many a childhood memories.  But by the end of World War II the era of steam was over.  After little more than a century.  Barely a blip in the historical record.  Yet it advanced mankind in that century like few other technological advances.   Transforming the Industrial Revolution into the Second Industrial Revolution.  Or the Technological Revolution.  That gave us the steel that built America.  Electric Power.  Mass production.  And the production line.  None of which would have happened without the steam locomotive.  It was one of the few technologies that wasn’t replaced by a superior technology.  For the steam locomotive was more powerful than the diesel-electric that replaced it.  But the diesel-electric was far more cost-efficient than the steam locomotive. Even if you had to lash up 5 diesels to do the job of one steam locomotive.

The Hot Gases from the Firebox pass through the Boiler Tubes to Boil Water into Steam

The steam engine is an external combustion engine.  Unlike the internal combustion engine the burning of fuel did not move a piston.  Instead burning fuel produced steam.  And the expansion energy in steam moved the piston.  The steam locomotive is a large but compact boiler on wheels.  At one end is a firebox that typically burned wood, coal or oil.  At the other end is the smokebox.  Where the hot gases from the firebox ultimately vent out into the atmosphere through the smokestack.  In between the firebox and the smokebox are a bundle of long pipes.  Boiler tubes.  The longer the locomotive the longer the boiler tubes. 

To start a fire the fireman lights something to burn with a torch and places it on the grating in the firebox.  As this burns he may place some pieces of wood on it to build the fire bigger.  Once the fire is strong he will start shoveling in coal.  Slowly but surely the fire grows hotter.  The hot gases pass through the boiler tubes and into the smokebox.  And up the smoke stack.  Water surrounds the boiler tubes.  The hot gases in the boiler tubes heat the water around the tubes.  Boiling it into steam.  Slowly but surely the amount of water boiled into steam grows.  Increasing the steam pressure in the boiler.  At the top of the boiler over the boiler tubes is a steam dome.  A high point in the boiler where steam under pressure collects looking for a way out of the boiler.  Turned up into the steam dome is a pipe that runs down and splits into two.  Running to the valve chest above each steam cylinder.  Where the steam pushes a piston back and forth.  Which connects to the drive wheels via a connecting rod.

When the engineer moves the throttle level it operates a variable valve in the steam dome.  The more he opens this valve the more steam flows out of the boiler and into the valve chests.  And the greater the speed.  The valve in the valve chest moved back and forth.  When it moved to one side it opened a port into the piston cylinder behind the piston to push it one way.  Then the valve moved the other way.  Opening a port on the other side of the piston cylinder to allow steam to flow in front of the piston.  To push it back the other way.  As the steam expanded in the cylinder to push the piston the spent steam exhausted into the smoke stack and up into the atmosphere.  Creating a draft that helped pull the hot gases from the firebox through the boiler tubes, into the smokebox and out the smoke stack.  Creating the chugging sound from our childhood memories.

The Challenger and the Big Boy were the Superstars of Steam Locomotives

To keep the locomotive moving required two things.  A continuous supply of fuel and water.  Stored in the tender trailing the locomotive.  The fireman shoveled coal from the tender into the firebox.  What space the coal wasn’t occupying in the tender was filled with water.  The only limit on speed and power was the size of the boiler.  The bigger the firebox the hotter the fire.  And the hungrier it was for fuel.  The bigger locomotives required a mechanized coal feeder into the firebox as a person couldn’t shovel the coal fast enough.  Also, the bigger the engine the greater the weight.  The greater the weight the greater the wear and tear on the rail.  Like trucks on the highway railroads had a limit of weight per axel.  So as the engines got bigger the more wheels there were ahead of the drive wheels and trailing the drive wheels.  For example, the Hudson 4-6-4 had two axels (with four wheels) ahead of the drive wheels.  Three axles (with 6 wheels) connected to the pistons that powered the train.  And two axels (with four wheels) trailing the drive wheels to help support the weight of the firebox.

To achieve ever higher speeds and power over grades required ever larger boilers.  For higher speeds used a lot of steam.  Requiring a huge firebox to keep boiling water into steam to maintain those higher speeds.  But greater lengths and heavier boilers required more wheels.  And more wheels did not turn well in curves.  Leading to more wear and tear on the rails.  Enter the 4-6-6-4 Challenger.  The pinnacle of steam locomotive design.  To accommodate this behemoth on curves the designers reintroduced the articulating locomotive.  They split up the 12 drive wheels of the then most powerful locomotive in service into two sets of 6.  Each with their own set of pistons.  While the long boiler was a solid piece the frame underneath wasn’t.  It had a pivot point.  The first set of drive wheels and the four wheels in front of them were in front of this pivot.  And the second set of drive wheels and the trailing 4 wheels that carried the weight of the massive boiler on the Challenger were behind this pivot.  So instead of having one 4-6-6-4 struggling through curves there was one 4-6 trailing one 6-4.  Allowing it to negotiate curves easier and at greater speeds.

The Challenger was fast.  And powerful.  It could handle just about any track in America.  Except that over the Wasatch Range between Green River, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah.  Here even the Challenger couldn’t negotiate those grades on its own.  These trains required double-heading.  Two Challengers with two crews (unlike lashing up diesels today where one crew operates multiple units from one cab).  And helper locomotives.  This took a lot of time.  And cost a lot of money.  So to negotiate these steep grades Union Pacific built the 4-8-8-4 articulated Big Boy.  Basically the Challenger on steroids.  The Big Boy could pull anything anywhere.  The Challenger and the Big Boy were the superstars of steam locomotives.  But these massive boilers on wheels required an enormous amount of maintenance.  Which is why they lasted but 20 years in service.  Replaced by tiny little diesel-electric locomotives.  That revolutionized railroading.  Because they were so less costly to maintain and operate.  Even if you had to use 7 of them to do what one Big Boy could do.

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Invasion of Canada, Benedict Arnold, Thomas Paine, Trenton, Princeton, General Howe, Invasion of Pennsylvania, General Burgoyne and Saratoga

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 22nd, 2012

Politics 101

After a Long Retreat that started on Long Island Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas to attack Trenton and restore Morale

The Patriot spirit was high in 1775.  The Americans voted for independence.  They signed the Declaration of Independence.  Delegates to the Continental Congress returned to their states to write new constitutions.  After the Battles of Lexington and Concord they forced the British back into their Boston garrison.  Made the British victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill a costly one.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York on Lake Champlain.  In January of 1776 Henry Knox took the fort’s heavy cannon and dragged them to Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.  Where General Washington used them to get the British to finally evacuate Boston after an 11 month siege.  Not a bad way to start a war with a ragtag army against the mightiest military power in the world.  But would these victories continue?

No.  It would be awhile before the Americans would score another victory.  The invasion of Canada was a disaster.  The retreating forces were decimated by small pox.  And chased by the British.  They would have advanced down the Hudson River cutting off New England from the rest of the colonies had it not been for Benedict Arnold’s stubborn retreat.  Meanwhile Washington was on Long Island waiting for the British invasion.  Which came.  And overwhelmed Washington’s forces.  Who retreated up through Manhattan, across the Hudson, through New Jersey and didn’t stop until he crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.  Morale in the army was plummeting.  Enlistments were up and few were reenlisting.  Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, was in Washington’s army during this retreat.  He wrote in December, 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”  The fate of America now rested with the few who remained in the army.  These true Patriots.  Who were all in.  To the bitter end.  However soon, or quick, that may be.

The British stopped their pursuit of the Americans in New Jersey and took winter quarters.  Britain’s Hessian mercenaries garrisoned the town of Trenton.  And settled in for a quiet winter.  Not impressed with their enemy on the far side of the Delaware.  Lieutenant Colonel Rall, Commander, Hessian garrison in Trenton, said Washington’s army was “almost naked, dying of cold, without blankets, and very ill supplied with provisions.”  Which they were.  The morale of the army was at a dangerous low.  Threatening the very existing of the army.  Whose existence was the only thing preventing a British win.  For the Americans didn’t have to win.  They just had to keep from losing.  Which meant keeping the army in the field.  Washington needed a victory.  And fast.  To boost morale.  So on Christmas he crossed the ice-filled Delaware River.  And marched through snow and hail storms.  Many of the soldiers barefoot.  Whose feet stained the snow with blood.  Two soldiers even froze to death on the march.  Their objective?  The Hessian garrison in Trenton.

Washington’s Losses in Pennsylvania kept General Howe from Supporting General Burgoyne’s Campaign

The Americans attacked on December 26, 1776, and took the Hessians completely by surprise.  And won the battle with only three wounded.  One of which was America’s 4th president.  And the youngest and last of the Founding Fathers.  Lieutenant James Monroe.  After the victory Washington retired back across the Delaware.  But then crossed again in a couple of days.  This time heading to Princeton.  Took the city.  Then retired back across the Delaware after learning Lord Cornwallis was arriving with reinforcements.  Who a young captain of artillery engaged in battle.  Alexander Hamilton.  America’s first treasury secretary.  Who Washington promoted to lieutenant colonel as he made Hamilton his aide-de-camp.  A very influential position working in the Army’s headquarters alongside the commanding general of the Army.  He would serve in Washington’s headquarters until the Battle of Yorktown where Washington granted him his wish.  A combat command.  Where he would lead some of the early assaults that led to Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.  Washington looked on Hamilton as a son.  And this relationship would shape the future of the new nation.

But Yorktown would be a long 5 years away.  And that battle would be the next battle Washington could put in the ‘win’ column.  For most of 1777 included no American victories.  British General Howe invaded Pennsylvania.  And Washington met him in battle.  And didn’t win.  Though there were close battles.   Brandywine.  And Germantown.  But eventually Howe took the capital city.  Philadelphia.  And control of the Delaware River.  Forcing Washington to retreat across the Schuylkill River.  Into winter quarters.  At a place called Valley Forge.  But it was not all for naught.  Because of Washington’s stubborn defense he did keep Howe in Pennsylvania.  Where he was unable to provide the third prong in the grand attack on New York.  The campaign to sever New England from the other American colonies.  And ultimately changed the course of the war.

While Washington was engaging Howe in Pennsylvania, another British general was advancing down from Canada.  General John Burgoyne.  Who had overall command of the other two prongs.  A force of mostly loyalists and Indians under Colonel Barry St. Leger advancing east along the Mohawk River valley.  And a force of British, Hessian mercenaries, Indians, Canadians and Loyalists under Burgoyne advancing south down Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson River.  Howe was to come up the Hudson River from New York.  The three prongs coming together in Albany.  Thus severing New England from the other American colonies.  But without Howe coming up from the south the Americans were free to meet Burgoyne’s forces from the west and north and take advantage of their long lines of communications.  With Benedict Arnold helping to stall the Mohawk prong.  And routing St. Leger.  Arnold then joined the battle against Burgoyne.  Who was struggling deep in enemy territory and running low on supplies.  Then came Saratoga.  Where Arnold anticipated Burgoyne’s plan.  Argued with General Horatio Gates (who had just relieved General Schuler when he was so close to victory.  Politics.)  Gates finally relented and dispatched Morgan’s riflemen and Dearborn’s light infantry to reinforce the American left.  While Arnold attacked the center.  The Americans carried the day.  And Burgoyne, deep in enemy territory with Patriots in his rear and the winter approaching, surrendered his army following the Battle of Saratoga.  And with it any hope for British victory in America’s Revolutionary War.

The Defeat of a British Army at Saratoga gave the Americans Respect and Legitimacy

Washington didn’t win a lot of battles.  But he won some of the most important ones.  Including the most important battle of them all.  Keeping the Continental Army in the field.  After retiring from Princeton in January he didn’t win another battle in 1777.  But he did provide a stubborn resistance for General Howe.  Keeping him in Pennsylvania.  And prevented him from providing that third prong that may have made all the difference between an American win and an American defeat.  That and the actions of the great and future traitor Benedict Arnold in the north won the Battle of Saratoga.  Defeating a British army.  Something few European nations have done.  Including the French.  So this was a very big deal.  For this changed everything.

This ragtag army was only some 25,000 strong at its height.  This out of a population of 2 million.  Or about 1.25% of the population.  A sign that perhaps most Americans were more talk than action when it came to this Revolution.  Yet it was this unprofessional army.  This army whose own government treated them poorly.  Who could barley clothe or feed them.  This is what defeated the most powerful army in the world.  This victory just gave them a whole lot of respect.  And legitimacy.  And made the French take notice.  Who saw that the Americans could actually win this war against France’s long-time foe.  And joining them in their cause would give them a chance to be on the winning side against the British.  And perhaps win back some of their North American colonies they lost on the Plains of Abraham back in 1759.  When French Canada became British.

This civil war in British America was about to become a world war.

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