The Allegheny Articulated Steam Locomotive: Technology Pushed to the Limit
Allegheny Steam Locomotive, 1941. / THF17920
Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Learn more about the Allegheny in our What If story and on our Popular Research Topic page, and find out more about the Newcomen Engine and how it came into our collection on our blog.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”