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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Gothic Novelty

September 5, 2014 Archive Insight

Steam engine with Gothic ornamentation by Novelty Works of New York, New York manufactured about 1855. (Object ID: 30.489.1).

The great Novelty Works steam engine in the Henry Ford Museum is arguably the finest surviving example of mid-19th century ornamented American machinery. Built in about 1855, the 30 foot tall, 50 ton gothic-style engine is a true visual emblem of the collision between traditional society and the modern industrial world taking place in this country just prior to the Civil War. Victorian engineers oftentimes covered their creations with ornament in a vain effort to harmonize these alien objects with the world about them. In the process, they unconsciously left a record of their own inner struggle to adapt to a new and alien world.

This engine was built to supply industrial power, deep inside a factory, far from public view. Installed at the Tatham Brothers Lead Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1857, the engine drove machinery used to make lead products like pipe and sheet flashing. The machine ceased functioning in 1929, when it was donated to the museum by John T. Lewis & Co.

The steam engine first appeared as a mine water pumping device in early 18th century England. After about 1800, the use of steam engines began to transform society in significant ways. Steamboats, steam railroads, and industrial steam power became increasingly important as the engines were improved and new uses found for them.

By the 1850s, steam powered transport had shrunk the size of the western world dramatically. The sturdy paddlewheel steamships of the Cunard and Collins Lines had reduced the time for an Atlantic crossing from weeks to 8 days. Trains on the Great Western Railway in England regularly reached speeds of 60 miles per hour. The steam railroad cut travel time between (for example) Boston and New York from days to a few hours. By 1860, American railroads had reached from the Atlantic seaboard to beyond the Mississippi. They would cross the continent in 1869, reducing trans-continental travel time from weeks to a few days.

Even though in 1850 falling water still powered most American industry, steam powered factories had also made their appearance in sizable numbers. Using steam engines to drive their mills allowed industrialists to place factories near markets for their goods and within easy reach of a huge and cheap supply of immigrant labor. Steam driven industrial plants could be built in almost any size desired. They could also be run throughout the year without regard to variance in water level due to seasonal changes.

However, there were serious negative trade-offs. The huge coal fires used to heat the boilers made lots of smoke and pollution. Concentrating mills and mill housing in an ever smaller geographic area led to the first modern industrial cities with their pollution, filth, and crime. The boilers used to provide steam to the engines on land and sea exploded with fearful regularity, sometimes killing hundreds. Nevertheless, most people saw the coming of the steam age as a wonderful opportunity to make the world a better place. It seemed that there was no problem that enough steam power and Yankee Ingenuity could not solve. So the size of the engines and the factories they drove continued to increase in size, especially in the boom years after the Civil War.

Ironically, through all of this, the steam engine itself remained a profound mystery to most people. All-powerful and at times frighteningly dangerous as well as useful, the stream engine operated on scientific principles that were barely understood by only a tiny number of people in 1850. The great mechanical servant, sometimes sold as an "Iron Slave" was also god-like in its power and mystery. Steam engines and their builders became fascinating to the public at large. In an article in the May, 1851 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Jacob Abbott waxed poetic about a steam engine similar to the one pictured. The engine Abbott described in such glowing terms was used to power the Novelty Works in New York City, the firm which built the engine in the Museum. Novelty also manufactured the great side-lever engines used to power the ships of the Collins Line, then locked in mortal combat with Cunard for dominance in the Atlantic Steamship trade.

"This central engine since it carries all the machinery of the works, by means of which everything is formed and fashioned, is the mother, in fact, of all the monsters which issue from it; and it is impossible to look upon her, as she toils on industriously in her daily duty, and think of her Titanic progeny, scattered now over every ocean of the globe, without a certain feeling of respect and even admiration."

Abbott was clearly overwhelmed by the power and grandeur of the shop's main engine which ran everything in the machine shops at the Novelty Works. He was also well aware of the significance of steam power for the country's future. While he was specifically telling how marine engines were built, he could just as well have been writing about any of the new uses of steam in mills, on ships, and in the railroad industry. His article opens with a description of the impact of successful systems of marine steam power:

"Perhaps no one of those vast movements which are now going forward among mankind, and which mark so strikingly the industrial power and genius of the present age, is watched with more earnest interest by thinking men, than the successive steps of progress by which the mechanical power of steam and machinery is gradually advancing in its contest for the dominion of the seas. There is a double interest in this conflict. In fact, the conflict is a double one. There is first a struggle between the mechanical power and ingenuity of man, on the one hand, and the uncontrollable and remorseless violence of ocean storms on the other; and secondly, there is the rivalry, not unfriendly, though extremely ardent and keen, between the two most powerful commercial nations on the globe, each eager to be the first to conquer the common foe."

The builders of the engine at the Henry Ford Museum were probably not consciously thinking of all of this, yet their creation symbolizes much of this in grand fashion. By making the engine an example of Gothic beauty, Novelty gave it a certain dignity and made an unwritten statement about their own feeling about this machine and themselves. For while the engine was designed to produce power deep inside a factory, it also was designed to convey a sense of the maker's cultivation and ingenuity.

By the 1860s, a debate about ornamenting machinery had begun. An article written by an anonymous author appeared in the September 12, 1863 issue of Scientific American. The writer made the following statement about decoration of machinery:

"In respect to the ornamentation of machines many different opinions exist. There are a certain class of manufacturers who build their machines without any attempt at decoration, and who reject all outward show, as detracting from the real merit of the article--which lies unquestionably in its capacity to do the work it was designed for. Yet another, and in this country a very numerous class, so overload their mechanisms with paint, gilding, and gewgaws, that the appearance becomes tawdry in the extreme, and detracts very materially from the pleasure one experiences in looking at what may be an otherwise well-designed and efficient machine....

It seems to us that in all cases, where the ornamentation of a machine is determined upon, a safe rule would be to consult the well-established laws of design (and common sense also) before perpetrating abortions which will, perhaps, live long after the offender against good taste has departed.

All apparatus intended to be placed in an obscure co2ner, or those parts of machines which are not seen, require no outward adornment. But in other cases, where perhaps hundreds of persons daily use the apparatus, and the whole world, so to speak, criticizes and comments upon its appearance, a tasteful and appropriate exterior adds, not only to the beauty of the machine, but to its value; and is at once a mark of enterprise and an evidence of the maker's cultivation."

The author never deals with the real and knotty problem of how the laws of traditional design were supposed to be applied to devices like steam engines which had never existed before. The makers of this engine apparently felt that building a Hi'h Gothic engine would reflect well on their "cultivation". In any case, the machine does neatly show how complex the relationship between the makers and their creation was. The engine was, in a very real sense, a combination slave and god, that was created by humans.

Steam engines continued to be built throughout the remainder of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Better and better engines were designed and built and as the 19th century came to a close, the engines were being built with less and less traditional ornament or adornment. Instead, a new set of design rules, based solidly within the machine age, took over, and the engines began to sport artfully proportioned flywheels, polished iron connecting rods, and perfectly designed cylinders. The engines became beautiful in their own right.

Meanwhile, especially in the design of the buildings that housed the great pumping engines used by cities, the architects continued to build "temples of power" with the great engines located in the center as alters to the new order of steam, steel and industry. The modern age had almost arrived, all that was necessary was for architects to develop building designs that were also based on the machine. This indeed happened, just in time for the new century.

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