Retrotechtacular: The Art of the Foundry

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Mention the term heavy industry and the first thing to come to mind might well be the metal foundry. With immense machines and cauldrons of molten metal being shuttled about by crane and rail, the image of the foundry is like a scene from Dantes Inferno, with fumes filling a vast impersonal factory, and sparks flying through the air. It looks like a dangerous place, as much to the soul as to the body, as workers file in each day to suffer mindlessly at the hearths and ladles, consumed in dirty, exhausting work even as it consumes them.

Things are not always as they appear, of course. While theres no doubting the risks associated with working in a foundry such as the sprawling Renfrew works of Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. in the middle of the previous century, as the video below shows the work there was anything but mindless, and the products churned out by the millions from this factory and places like it throughout the world were critical to todays technology.

Heavy Metal

An Edison-approved B&W boiler, customized for the Menlo Park lab. Source: Babcock and Wilcox

Babcock and Wilcox, Ltd., the company featured in the classic of corporate promotion below, has a fascinating history. Started in America in the mid-1800s at a time when engineers pretty much only built engines, friends Stephen Wilcox and George Babcock teamed up to make a new and improved steam boiler. In a case of right time, right place, and right design, Babcock & Wilcox boilers were sold to factories making the switch from water power to steam. Thomas Edison even specified B&W boilers for his Invention Factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the famously irascible inventor wrote a letter praising the company for the best boiler God has permitted man yet to make.

By the late 1800s, B&W had opened an office in Glasgow, Scotland. By then the company had moved into the marine boiler market, with B&W boilers powering the ships of US president Teddy Roosevelts Great White Fleet at the turn of the century. A decade later, Babcock and Wilcox, Ltd. was incorporated, with offices in London and a foundry in Renfrew, Scotland. That foundry would grow with the business, and build not only the finished boilers but all the parts needed to make them and fit them into a ship or a power plant.

Its fittings like these that we see being made in the film. The basic process of casting is simple enough to do at home; molten soda cans and packed sand molds will do a reasonable job. The Renfrew works operated at an entirely different scale, of course, and made cast iron parts rather than cast aluminum. And while the process was simple, the craftsmanship was anything but. The patternmakers stand out the most; with all the woodworking skills of fine cabinetmakers, they turned pine and mahogany into the complex patterns needed to form the molds from casting sand. The least defect would be reflected in the casting, so special care was paid to finishing the wood, and the patternmakers needed to be clever indeed to make some of the multipart patterns required for complex parts.

In addition to traditional, manual cope-and-drag casting for limited runs of special parts, the film shows more automated processes where parts are mass-produced quickly. Watching the ladles of molten iron being slung about is nerve-wracking, especially knowing that the only safety gear being used was the occasional cigarette.

Watching the film, I was struck by the thought that as low-tech as foundry operations seem from our vantage point, the products that came from them were anything but. First, the film was made in 1953, right about the time that both the worlds first commercial nuclear power plant, Calder Hall in England, and the worlds first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, were being built using B&W boilers. Casting fittings and boilers for nuclear plants is cutting edge stuff, even if it starts with sand and molten metal.

Second, the scale of the operations going on in that plant means the logistics must have been incredible. Think about planning every last detail so that the right mix of metal is ready at just the right temperature for molds on a particular production line or custom shop. And were only seeing a sliver of the complexity of a foundry like Renfrew, which covered hundreds of acres in its heyday. Getting the whole plant running efficiently enough to be able to produce parts of high enough quality to be used in nuclear plants, and doing it without the help of computers and automation, is a testament to just high low-technology can reach.

Thanks to [Truth] for the suggestion on this one.

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