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OT: A tale of a steam engine indicator


Thanks for the great post. It is quite a good story of how a chance introduction by your summer reading of a physics text, and the efforts of your neighbor to develop your knowledge developed your career path. Sometimes, when a young person takes an interest in something that an older person can help them with, the effect is 'lifetime'. I make a point of mentoring young people whenever I can, teaching when I can, and find it to be the most rewarding part of my own work.


I finally found a sufficient excuse to buy a used engineer transit a couple of years back. With the move by the surveying community to using 'total station' instruments, optical surveying instruments are sold for what seems small money. I found a Brunson engineer transit on ebay in fine shape in close proximity to our home. The seller is also an engineer who collects surveying instruments. He specializes in W. & L.E. Gurley instruments since they were made local to his home. He got the Brunson transit in a lot of instruments. I use it mainly to layout section and plot lines in our congregation's cemetery, so 'plumbing up over a point' with the transit is a regular occurance. The use of a 'Gammon reel' eliminates knowing the niceties of tying a slip-knot in the plumb line cord. I really enjoy using the transit and 'carrying out" lines and having them hit existing markers set by surveyors many years ago in the cemetery. We are putting in permanent in-ground makers for the cemetery plots, using rebar stakes and aluminum (with plastic insulating bushings) marker caps. I use a Hilti masonry drill (Lincoln welder on my pickup provides power) to drill down into the soil, which is as much rock as it is dirt. We then sink the rebar stakes and drive on the marker caps. It's not real 'first order work', nor is it 'meets and bounds' surveying, but it's a good excuse for the first real transit work I've done in ages. The old style instruments are basic, no batteries to worry about, no software to act up, and rely on common sense and skill. I have no shortage of willing helpers from the congregation, and of course, everyone wants to take a peek through the transit at some point. I find myself teaching basic surveying principals when we work at the cemetery as a result.

My wife, Nancy, works with me, and she and others joke about us 'picking out our plots' and 'laying out our own plots a bit larger' for when that time comes. An interesting perspective to be literally preparing one's own 'final resting place'. I've repaired and welded new steel into 400 linear feet of ca 1920 ornamental steel cemetery fence, built new vehicle entries and gates, so marking out the plots is the final bit of work in our cemetery. I don't think too many people can say they helped prepare their own final resting places, and it is a tie to my father. When I was a very small boy, I used to look over plans that my father was working on, and Dad used to sing a song to me. It was likely something he learned in college, and the only few lines of it I recall are:

-"He wrote a great treatise on angles and lines,
Sections and spheres, surveying man's signs
Tangent, cotangent, cosecant, cosine,
Sections and spheres, surveying man's signs..."

This was something the old man sang to me from the time I was a baby and as something of a lullabye after reading such poems as "Old Ironsides" or "The Village Blacksmith" to me at bed time. I've never been able to find where that few lines of the song were from, and every time I use the transit, I find myself singing those lines at some point, thinking of the old man.

As far as steam engine indicators go:

With the Covid-19 Pandemic, Hanford Mills is open on a limited basis and no plans are in place for running the steam plant at all this season. All such events and Steam Power 101 were cancelled, so no chance to play with the Maihak indicator. Maybe next season if the medical and scientific communities prevail and come up with a treatment protocol and vaccine for Covid-19.

I agree that we need to encourage such children. I don't think they can be identified by IQ. Lewis Terman, who did a lot of the original work developing the IQ test, made a list of people with high IQs and followed their careers. None did anything very outstanding. Two people he excluded from the list on the grounds that they weren't smart enough were William Shockley and Luis Alvarez.

In my own experience, I had a friend who came from Bernie, MO. In case you are not familiar with the area, in the movie Million Dollar Baby, Hillary Swank's character came from Theodisia, which is just down the road from Bernie, same culture. It wa easy to write Steve off as a big, dumb, hillbilly. When confronted with a problem, he would flounder around and finally come up with an answer. After a while I started noticing one thing- he was almost always right. He didn't process data fast, but he would work his way to the correct conclusion. When the last of his children left the nest, he decided that he could spend the money for flying lessons, a lifelong desire. He bought a Cessna 120 and got an instructor. One day he told me that he was selling the plane because he had concluded that he could never learn to fly. I wish I could claim more insight, but I like to fly 120s, so I suggested we use it a bit before he sold it. We took off with me doing the driving an wandered around looking at the scenery. After a while, I suggested he drive. He did, and soon was making nicely coordinated turns and generally doing a good job. The instructor he had was on him all the time to get a low wing up, watch his altitude, etc. and simply overloaded him. He got a different instructor and turned out to be quite a good pilot.

Mentoring can be a tricky business, whether for children or adults.

In 1951, an amateur radio license required the ability to copy Morse code at 13 words a minute. There was s one year novice license that only required 5 WPM, but you tried to skip that. I had a summer job in St. Louis city near where a neighbor who had been a WWII shipboard radio operator worked. At quitting time, I would take a streetcar to his workplace and ride home. We would do a half hour of code, then go swimming in the pool my father had built. The FCC test came up in August. Bob wouldn't tell me how fast he was sending and said to go for the novice license if I failed the 13 WPM. When the moment of truth came, it was like watching a slow motion movie. I don't know how fast he had me up to, but it was far in excess of 13. I got the amateur license and later a first class radiotelephone commercial license. The commercial has expired because you have to show proof of use to renew, but I still have the amateur license.

Suffice it to say that without the people around me, I would be a very different person.