Racing by Steam


Of all English sports, racing is the most thoroughly popular, and of all our national pleasures there is none so widely and so heartily loved as this. The English passion for horses united to this delight in racing, has produced, and keeps alive a system of national amusement, girt about with a machinery almost sufficiently extensive and complicated to govern a country.

But if the English people love horse-racing, there is no small number of them whose sympathies are strong for other developments of the same species of sport. Every British yachtsman glories in our regattas, every oarsman loves the madness of a boat-race, every runner pants for foot-races, while our small boys find intense delight in trials of speed between rival donkeys.

As a people, we assuredly do love all manner of racing. Hunting is popular, cricket a favourite sport, shooting has its enthusiastic votaries, fishing its fond disciples, fighting even its lovers, and the mystic game of “nurr and spell” its obscure devotees; but racing embraces all of these, covers every variety of sportsman under its broad mantle, and forces each to acknowledge its superior attractiveness.

Now these thoughts came to me on this wise: In the month of December 1857, I went, in common with many another man from the country, to the Annual Smithfield Cattle Show. I admired the short-horns, wondered at the obese pigs, was charmed with the muttons, and pleased with all I saw.

I walked through the stands for the exhibition of machinery, and mused and marvelled at the ingenuity there represented. I presently dived down stairs to the small steam engines below, and found myself ultimately almost bewildered by the variety, extent, and novelty of the means by which modern science has added to the resources of the farmer, when I suddenly stood face to face with my old friend and quondam schoolfellow, Plummer Block.

I had not seen Plummer for fifteen years; when last we met he, then a lad with much love of tools and all manner of machinery, was about being apprenticed to a millwright, established near his father’s farm, who made for the farmer such ploughs, harrows, drills, and grinding-mills as were in fashion at that time; since then we had not met, and I had only heard of him as senior partner in a comparatively new and flourishing firm, known as Messrs. Block and Bolt, Agricultural Engineers and Machinists.

Greetings and friendly inquiries over, I spoke presently of my wonder and admiration of the appliances by which we were surrounded.

“Yes,” said Plummer, “there have been very great improvements lately; and in no branch of our business is this more noticeable than in the construction of these engines about us.”

I looked interested, and he continued:

“Ten years ago, the term ‘Agricultural Steam Engine’ had scarcely a recognised existence; now there are some thousands of these busy bees humming away in this country alone.”

I asked what he considered the chief agents in working such a revolution.

“Increase of improvement and adaptability to their work in the machines,” he replied. “The first engines of this description were expensive, ill made pieces of machinery, costly in working, and difficult to move from place to place, from their great weight; now they are models of lightness, good workmanship, and economy. Our annual show has done wonders in bringing about this change, and the system of competitive trials of the relative merits of engines by the different makers has produced very marked results. This engine,” he continued, nodding towards that near which we stood, “is our last year’s racer — a firstclass engine in every respect.”

“Last year’s racer!” I exclaimed; “what do you mean?”

“Ah,” he replied, “‘racer’ has grown to be quite a recognised term in the trade now. We call those engines ‘racers’ which we exhibit and enter for the Royal Agricultural Society’s prizes; and I can assure you,” he added, “that the run against your rivals, as well as the preparatory ‘training’ and ‘trial gallops,’ are by no means unexciting amusements.”

“Do you mean to tell me,” I said, “that you really train engines — steam engines — for these yearly ‘races’ as you call them?”

“Most seriously I do,” said Plummer; “but you seem interested as well as surprised: make up your mind, then, to run down into Blankshire for a week next June, and we will give you a peep into the mysteries of an agricultural engineer’s mechanical ‘stud,’ and show you the paces of some of our forthcoming crack entries for the Carlisle meeting of 1858.”

The result of this conversation was, that I visited Messrs. Block and Bolt’s manufactory, and, believing the general reader to be as unacquainted as I previously was with the mechanical mysteries of engine racing, I now propose to tell him something of what I saw, and show him that the races of steam engines, as well as of horses, boats, or donkeys, may have their elements of pleasure and excitement.

I presume that everybody nowadays knows what is meant by an agricultural or portable steam engine: let no one innocently imagine that I am about to speak of two engines of locomotive habits being pitted against each other for a trial of speed. No. The agricultural steam engine is nothing more than a small portable motive power set on wheels, incapable of independent locomotion, ignobly drawn by horses from place to place, and which is intended to do for the large farmer all such operations as thrashing, grinding, chaffcutting, and winnowing, at a cheaper and speedier rate than they can be done by hand or horselabour.

From this outline of the destiny of a portable steam engine, it will at once be evident that three main conditions are necessary to their adoption and success — namely, lightness, good workmanship, and economy of fuel in working. There are, of course, other minor desirables; but it is to these three, and specially to the last two, that the Agricultural Society of England awards its prizes and commendations.

That all engines competing for a prize may stand as nearly as possible on a broad basis of equality, the Society publishes, yearly, a list of their requirements in certain of the more important constructional details, such for example as the minimum thickness of boilerplates and diameter of heating-tubes, together with such other conditions as they consider should be ensured to every purchaser of an engine.

Every exhibitor is thus prevented from gaining any unfair advantage over others, as certain rejection follows the infringement of the Society’s stipulations.
Having said thus much by way of necessary preface, let me describe, as nearly as I can, what I saw at my friend’s factory.

In a large and convenient building to which I was introduced, there stood some new and beautiful steam-engines; these having been completed a few days previously in the shops, had been removed to this “Experimental Shed,” as it was called, where they now awaited the trial of their capabilities.

As the method of trial in each case was precisely similar, I shall speak only of the experiments made upon one of them, which may stand as the type of all the others. The boiler was first filled with water from pipes conveniently laid in the building for this purpose; the engine was then carefully oiled and cleaned down. A pair of scales stand by the wall of the shed; in these are weighed out first 20 lbs. of wood and then one cwt. of Welsh coal.

The stoker (a young man in overalls and jaunty cap, with wonderfully white hands for his calling) takes his wood and coal, and having first broken up the latter into pieces about the size of a walnut, handling each atom the while as if it were a thing of priceless value, proceeds to light his fire and get up the steam. Of the skill which he displays in this, as well as in firing, throughout the experiment, more hereafter.

Meanwhile, an apparatus called a “friction-break,” is adjusted to the fly-wheel of the engine. As it will be needful to offer some explanation of the nature and uses of this friction-break, let us take the opportunity of the delay caused by raising steam; to say a few words on the matter, which will involve some slight interpretation of the whole philosophy of a “trial.”

The first desideratum in an engine being economy of fuel, it becomes necessary in the comparison of the performances of two competing engines to determine which of the two has done the greater amount of work with a given quantity of fuel, and this is ascertained thus:

The capability or strength of an engine is generally stated in horses’ power. Now a “horse power” is only a technical mode of expression, representing a certain amount of weight lifted a certain height in a certain time. The unit of a horse power is fixed by general consent at 33,000 pounds raised one foot high in one minute. It follows, then, that an engine capable of raising 33,000 pounds one foot high in one minute is of one-horse power.

The friction break is an instrument for determining the horse power of an engine; without describing it too fully in detail, it will be sufficient to say that by means of the friction it produces on the fly-wheel of the engine, the weight due to the horses’ power of such engine is practically lifted. Supposing, for example, that a “racer” be entered for trial as of eight horses’ power, the friction break will be applied in such a manner as to compel it to lift a weight equal to eight times 33,000 pounds one foot high per minute; if, while this is being done, notice be taken of the time occupied in the consumption of one cwt. of coal, it is evident that we shall have as the result the length of time during which 112 pounds of coal will produce a power equal to that of eight horses.

It is, then, a matter of simple division to find the quantity of coal required to produce a power of one horse for the same time, and finally discover the quantity of coal required by the engine to enable it to give out a power equal to that of one horse for one hour. Thus, then, all engines may be brought to one standard, and the friction break is the means by which we may discover how much coal per horse power per hour each competing engine requires, the lowest in consumption naturally standing first in the rank.

But the steam is up, and our friend in the overalls, who has explained all this to us, opens the starting-valve and tarns round to note upon a ruled memorandum sheet nailed to the wall, beside which hangs his watch, the precise time occupied in getting up steam — “25 minutes” — not bad to begin with.

The engine is off, the “break” compelling her to lift the weight due to her power, and the “trial” has fairly begun. Now, look at that little heap of coal beside the fire box; a most scanty morsel it seems; every energy has to be exhausted and every ingenuity to be resorted to, to make that little scuttleful of coals last as long as possible. She runs steadily along for fifteen minutes, then the needle of the sensitive pressure gauge begins to tell of a slight fall in the pressure of the steam; more fuel must go on the fire.

Now if you imagine that our friend the fireman is about to open that door and heave on his coal by the shovelful you are vastly mistaken. He first peeps through a small talc window about two inches in diameter, set like an eye in the furnace door, marks where the fire is thinnest, opens a tiny circular door immediately below the eye aforesaid, and with a hooked “pricker” gently spreads the fuel evenly over the fire bars; then, in an instrument of about the bigness of a goodsized tablespoon, he takes a supply of coals and — hey presto — in the twinkling of an eye, while you were lost in astonishment at the smallness of the dose about to be administered, the fire door is opened, the infinitesimal shovelful “exhibited,” and the door closed with a “cling,” all with the quickness of light; in goes the hooked “pricker” again through the little circular door, spreading the fuel evenly; and he writes down “15 minutes to first firing” —very good indeed.

The hand of the pressure gauge soon begins moving upwards again, and is slowly crawling beyond the appointed 45 pounds per square inch, when the damper is closed in a moment and the combustion slightly checked.

But the water in the boiler is getting lower and lower; it is time to put the pump to work. A huge bucket stands beside the engine, to which the suction pipe of the pump is attached; into this bucket, which is kept supplied with cold water, a large portion of the waste steam is admitted, and the water thereby heated; the pump therefore on being set to work throws water already nearly at the boiling point into the boiler; after a few trials the quantity delivered is regulated to supply as nearly as possible, the same amount as the constant evaporation converts into steam, and the pump is fairly at work.

But this feed water, warm though it be, is cold in comparison with the heated water within the boiler, and a very few minutes suffice to show the cooling effect, and to indicate by the pressure gauge that the steam is again falling. Quick as thought, the damper is opened, and the increased draught soon brings the needle to its place again. Still the admission of the cold feed water makes itself felt, and this time the operation of administering the tiny scoopful of coals has to be repeated at an interval of ten minutes from the last; this, however, is not bad.

Up goes the damper again, after a few moments, and ten or twelve minutes pass, during which friend “Overalls” wipes and oils every working part of the engine, and surveys the tiny fire within the furnace through the little talc window with the deepest solicitude.

Again the steam falls, and again the damper is opened; the needle crawls weakly and uncertainly upwards for a few moments, then begins slowly falling; then comes another infinitesimal dose of coal, followed by another ten minutes or so of rest. So it goes on now, coal being administered about every ten or twelve minutes.

The pump is working well, keeping the water exactly at the required level, and everything goes smoothly on; the most noticeable thing being our fireman’s anxious face, as he peers through the little window, and rakes his fuel smooth, or as he looks with lingering eyes on the lessening heap of coals by his side.

Half an hour has passed, and “Overalls” takes advantage of a few minutes’ rest to sweep away every atom of cinder fallen from the furnace, carefully into his remaining stock of coal; he mixes them as carefully together, and seeing a visible increase in his resources, looks bright and hopeful.

An hour passes thus in a series of repetitions of all these processes, still there seems but little diminution of the tiny heap of coals, and you begin to wonder when they will shrink. Another half-hour, and the little heap has grown visibly less. “Overalls ” tries hard to make up the deficiency with ashes, but evidently feels his failure. All the while the engine goes monotonously on, till presently a second hour is completed, and now the heap is indeed lessened.

Will she run another hour? In the interest of this question, you forget everything, and find comfort only in our young fireman’s steadfast face as he goes on quietly trying every dodge he knows to husband his resources. Half-an-hour, three-quarters, an hour go slowly and anxiously by, and there is fuel still; another quarter of an hour, and there looks but a handful remaining.

Again the brush goes carefully round the ash-pan, and every particle of carbon is treasured like gold. One more regretful look at the fire through the little window, and a glance at the falling hand of the steam gauge, and “Overalls” goes to the pump and stops the feed — there will be no need of more water now, and it will give him a few minutes more to live.
Another scoopful of coals brings us on fifteen minutes more; in all, three hours and a half since starting.

Can it last another quarter-hour? Steadily and quietly, as at first, our fireman goes about his work, and holds now his last shovelful of coals waiting the next fall of the steam. There! it is all in now, and there is no more to be done but wait the result. The “pricker” is in again levelling the fire, the last fragment of cinder is thrown in at the fire-door, and now, watch in hand, we note the needle as it creeps for the last time up the dial, wavers a moment, then slowly drops lower and lower. Three hours forty-two minutes, and still she runs, lifting her weight steadily; 43 minutes, the weight begins to drag and oscillate; 44 minutes! 45! 46! 47!— “Stop her!”

It is all over, and you are wondering at your own excitement, and discovering, too late, that your enthusiasm has kept you for four hours in an atmosphere so terribly prejudicial to cleanliness, that you would be as pleased as I was to hear Plummer’s cheery voice.

“Well, old fellow, it’s not a bad run; let’s go in-doors and have a wash and some lunch.”

Half-an-hour afterwards we were deep in cold beef and bitter beer, when in came “Overalls” with his detailed memoranda of the trial — no longer the grimed and silent fireman of the morning, but a most well-favoured and intelligent young gentleman, pupil of the Messrs. Block and Bolt, who, out of sheer love for the work, was only too happy to don the shop-dress and fire for experiments.

“Well, James,” said Plummer, “what was the exact time run with one cwt. of coal?”

“Three hours forty-seven minutes,” said James. “I dare say we shall get another five minutes out of her at the next trial.”

“Then you will have other experiments with this engine,” I said, “before she is exhibited at Warwick?”

“Oh dear, yes,” he replied, “this is only the first; I dare say we shall have from twenty to thirty experiments with her in all, and at each we hope for some little improvement.”

“Hope so, too,” said Plummer, evidently pleased with the present results.

“Sit down, now, James, and have some lunch.”

So we all did justice to the cold beef and bitter beer, and did not forget to drink success to the little engine we had just left, when her time came to show her powers on the Agricultural Society’s race-course at Carlisle.

I will not say here that Messrs. Block and Bolt’s engine did take the prize at the recent trials, or knowing readers would search the Society’s report to find out who these gentlemen are; it will be enough if I have succeeded in showing that this new development of the sport of racing may have, like its better known representatives, some attractions and excitements as well as its failures and successes.

Author: D. P.


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