a day in a factory circa 1905 -- 5/27/20

Today's selection -- from The Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice by John K. Brown. At a point when America's manufacturing prowess led the world, one of its preeminent factories was Baldwin Locomotive Works in North Philadelphia. Here we see a typical day in the massive Baldwin factory in 1905:

"As the industrial age gathered force and momentum during the nineteenth century, the steam locomotive came to symbolize the new agencies of technology, commerce, speed, and power that reordered Western society and marked the most fundamental changes ever in humanity's lot on earth. ... [J]oin the throng on the way to work in the Baldwin plant early one morning in October 1905.

"Just before the starting whistles blow out at seven A.M., Baldwin's day shift of over ten thousand men hurries through the teeming streets of Bush Hill, an industrial district rendered in brick and soot, crowded with factories, railway lines, coal yards, and worker tenements. The men split up into separate groups, heading for the different shops of a factory spread out over twelve city blocks where the six thousand workers of the night shift are ready to lay down their tools. Upon arriving, the day men will begin work on any of the approximately 450 new locomotives that on this morning are at varying stages of completion in Baldwin's regular production schedule.

"From the foundries to the erecting shop, workers in eight skilled trades and scores of specialties apply their talents to engines ranging from little 4-ton electrics to massive 150-ton steamers. Baldwin foundry. Boilermaking has the potential to be a real bottleneck in the production schedule. All parts entering into a boiler come from outside suppliers, so most of the steel plates, flues, staybolts, piping, gauges, and insulation do not arrive at Baldwin until the fifth week of the production schedule. The firm allots
weeks five and six to the massively labor-intensive process of fabricating boilers, which can reach 40 feet in length and weigh up to 43,000 pounds even before the flues are added. To make each boiler in this two-week period, Baldwin allots four shops and over three thousand men on two shifts to the task. They employ powered tooling wherever possible: plate planers, drillers, punchers, and rollers that accommodate sheets over 20 feet long, as well as overhead cranes, hydraulic presses, and power riveters. Notwithstanding these tools, the work remains notably labor-intensive, and the firm must rigorously subdivide tasks to stay on schedule. Each stage has its own specialists: markers, drillers, rollers, flangers, riveters, chippers, and caulkers, many requiring helpers. Working in small groups that are paid piecework rates, the men hurry from plate to plate and machine to machine. The work is rushed but cannot be slapdash. Boilers under pressure are notoriously lethal, and Baldwin's customers often send inspectors into the plant to ensure that construction of their orders complies with railroad standards. The boiler shops are not as noisy as one would think. Huge hydraulic presses do most of the flanging work -- making steam domes, for instance -- while much of the riveting is accomplished by large hydraulic riveters rather than the brute-force hammering of the past.

"While the boilermakers shear, roll, punch, flange, press, and rivet steel sheets as if they were paper, over five thousand machinists turn to precision machining operations. Baldwin's machine shops are scattered across seven city blocks, with the two major shops on Broad Street occupying four- and six-story buildings. Since the machinists must await the products of the foundries and smith shops, today they are working on orders in weeks six and seven of the production schedule...

"The work of draftsmen, patternmakers, founders, blacksmiths, boilermakers, pipe fitters, and machinists all converges in the erecting shop--a single room filling most of a city block on Broad Street, only a short distance from City Hall and the heart of downtown Philadelphia. Erecting occupies the eighth week in the production schedule. Today the shop is filled to its capacity of seventy-five engines. In previous decades this final stage of construction had been a notable bottleneck to improving output. But now frames and other machined parts are made with sufficient precision to come together with only minimal fitting, while electric overhead cranes speed the handling of large parts like boilers. Today the army of thirty-two hundred workers in the erecting shop requires only a week on average to complete a locomotive. While all the men here are involved in erecting, a great range of skills and tasks come under that heading. Most are machinists and fitters, but large numbers of boilermakers, pipe fitters, insulation men, sheet-metal workers, painters, and laborers also work in the shop.

"Most visitors to the erecting shop find it a confusing bedlam of parts and men, a chaos of designs in varying stages of completion. The first stage in erecting generally involves setting up the cylinders, precisely aligning the bare machined frames on jacks, and bolting the cylinders to the frames. Next a flatcar arrives from the boiler shop across Buttonwood Street carrying a boiler that the 100-ton overhead crane silently places on its frames. Knots of busy men then descend upon the developing engine, each group specializing in a different task and proceeding quickly from one locomotive to the next. While erectors bolt the boiler to the cylinder saddle, boilermakers place hundreds of flues inside the boiler shell, each tube requiring ten separate steps to make a tight joint in the flue sheets. Then the engine is wheeled--plucked off its jacks by an overhead crane and placed on its driving wheels, which have been laid out on an adjacent track.

"Now it looks like a real locomotive, and the pace of construction increases. Specialist gangs drill, tap, and mount the remaining boiler fittings, the boiler is tested with hot water at 200 pounds per square inch, boilermakers caulk leaky flues and fittings, and the engine is prepared for a live steam test. The most skilled machinists in the plant set up the connecting rods, reversing gear, and valve motion. The bearings of these moving parts must be precisely aligned, so the machinists make final adjustments with files and scrapers. Other workers cover the boiler with its magnesia insulation and the sheet steel jacketing that protects the lagging, and a crane operator lowers the complete painted cab onto the engine. The locomotive is filled with 180-pound steam from a shop boiler, and a machinist cautiously opens the throttle. With the engine jacked up, the main drivers revolve in the air, showing that all is working properly.

"After this crucial test, the remaining work is hurried forward. Erectors add the brakes, lubricators, air pump, injectors, handrails, cab fittings, running boards, fire grates, ash pan, leading truck, and dozens of other parts. The engine is nearly finished, and the overhead crane places it on the ready track leading out of the building. A shop switcher will soon haul the new locomotive uptown on the tracks of the Philadelphia and Reading to Baldwin's finishing shop at Twenty-sixth Street. There it will join its tender from the Seventeenth Street shops, painters will finish lettering and detailing, and a Baldwin delivery engineer will take charge of the new locomotive. Under his care it will travel across country to its purchaser.

"In a mere eight weeks Baldwin's thousands of workers take a novel design and translate it from words on a specification sheet into drawings and then into a finished mechanism in steel and iron, weighing upwards of 150 tons and capable of hauling 6,000-ton trains. While customers around the globe order uniquely different locomotives, the methods used in production reduce the constant variety and potential chaos to routine and order. During the month of our imaginary visit, October 1905, more than seven engines rolled from the erecting shop every working day. For the year as a whole Baldwin built 2,250 locomotives in hundreds of designs for customers around the nation and the world."

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John K. Brown


The Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice


The Johns Hopkins University Press


1995, the Johns Hopkins University Press


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