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Beautiful Machines, Dirty History: Preservation Engineers

November 12, 2013

Credit: Old Machine PressWhether drawn by the challenge, or the beauty of the past, preservation engineers work to restore and repair the buildings, machines, and technology of previous generations.

We spoke with Neil “Nobby” Peers of Whitworth Marine Services, LLC, a maritime Chief Engineer and preservation engineer with a passion for restoring historical machinery.

“I did not plan this path,” Peers says. “It was not so much a conscious decision. I did not wake up as a teenager and go, ‘Boy, I really want to spend my life scratching about keeping old stuff running for bugger-all pay’.”

Nonetheless, preservation engineering brought Peers to some very interesting places over the course of his career. He sailed around the world as Chief Engineer on the Picton Castle, a three mast, square-rigged barque. He’s restored steam locomotives and water mills. He once welded a ship’s steering gear back together while tied in place against gale force winds, as his arc welder shocked him through soaked gloves.

Credit: Picton Castle Director of Information“This kind of work really is old-school, learn-as-you-go, using whatever resources one has to hand or developing such resources,” he says.

Today, he’s restoring a 1930s motor yacht with a varnished mahogany interior. His goal is to bring it back to its original glory, and up to date. “I’m installing all new equipment, but in a period fashion,” he explains. “All the lighting is old fixtures I have to rehabilitate and restore, power panels have to be built to be period in look, with analog meters.”

“Anything new has to be hidden and anything remaining from the old equipment that is still usable, I have to reincorporate.”

Peers is two years into the motor yacht restoration, which is one project among many. His typical workload is frankly impressive, with seven-day weeks of twelve-hour days. For an independent engineer and business owner, there are no idle moments. “Doing the work, planning it, working stuff out, sourcing, paperwork … It’s never-ending.”

Beautiful Machines and Dirty History

That Peers would grow to be an engineer or hacker seems inevitable, in retrospect. His father worked as a agricultural mechanic, with Peers alongside as soon as he was old enough to assist. “As a child I developed an insatiable desire to figure out how things worked. I was the kid who took the TV apart. If I couldn’t figure it out, I’d usually try and read about it.”

Public Domain, Originally in Harper's New Monthly MagazineWhile his aptitude, curiosity, and early training, Peers had the natural makings of an engineer. What drew him to restoration of older technologies was partly circumstance and partly the simple beauty of older machines. “Old machinery is artwork in itself,” he says. Previous generations of artificers built for longevity, with careful thought and an eye for easy-to-maintain designs. “And, in true Victorian fashion, pleasing to the eye.”

“It also helps to have somewhat of a hero complex,” he admits. “To be the one at the end of the day that pulled it off, made it happen, and have people be envious of what you do.”

There are significant intellectual challenges in restoring and maintaining old machinery. In many cases, a modern engineer may be entirely on their own, with nothing but the machine himself to guide them. Reference materials are rare, or entirely unavailable, and there are fewer “old hands” to consult with every passing year. For Peers, this is both a satisfying challenge and a mission, “maintaining history and providing people with a link to the past.”

He offers Kingston, NY and the Rondout Creek as an example, “being the terminal for the Hudson Delaware Canal and all that coal that fed the fires and hence the development success of New York City.”

Credit:  SteamboatMad

A random sample of Kingston natives, asked about the historical role of Rondout Creek, comes up empty. The most common answer is that it’s a tributary of the Hudson River, with restaurants and a marina for pleasure craft, and that it’s been much the same throughout history. The point stands for a number of features of the local landscape; a casual driver through the region will note tremendous kilns and furnaces built into the sides of mountains, old factory foundations, and deteriorated industrial structures for which the average Hudson Valley resident has no explanation. This vanishing knowledge lends the landscape a fantastic quality, as though the engineers of the past were of another race and civilization, entirely.

Yet these now-mysterious structures coexist with thriving preservation projects, such as the Colonial-era buildings of Kingston’s Stockade district and the tireless advocacy of citizen-driven initiatives like the Clearwater group.

“Problem is, the dirty history gets lost and Rondout’s pivotal role in things gets lost, also. Nice, friendly, clean history such as the Clearwater is a no-brainer to develop and maintain, but smoke-belching old machinery? Not so much.”

Becoming a Preservation Engineer

“Of course, there is no degree or diploma dedicated to fixing, maintaining, and operating old shit,” says Peers, who holds degrees in agricultural engineering and environmental science earned in the UK. “Perhaps I should start something.”

Credit: Chris AllenWorking to preserve beautiful machines and dirty history isn’t intrinsically different from modern engineering, but the required knowledge may be more difficult to acquire. A prospective preservation engineer often begins by developing their own reference library and connections with people of similar interests. “Seeking out and buying all the old, applicable reference and text books” is a start, Peers says, as is “talking to as many old guys as one can find and getting any and all information you can from them. Put their names in a black book and call them should the need arise.”

This collection of reference material, both printed and living, becomes a critical resource to preservation engineers in the course of their work. Often, the most important part of approaching a problem with older machines is understanding how it works and why it’s built the way it is, which requires specialized research. “When you hire me for old machinery work, it’s not just me you get,” Peers says. “It’s my bookcase and black book.”

“Working on old stuff requires you to think hard about what you are doing, not to get cocky and think you know better.” It’s an easy mistake to make, assuming that the technologies of the past were only flawed iterations on the way to superior, modern methods, but it prevents us from really learning about the past or restoring its artifacts. “Problem solving requires you understand how something works and why they did it this way,” Peers says. Only then can you move on to study the constraints of the problem, such as availability of materials and spare parts, or the feasibility of machining replacements, in order to develop a solution.

If you’re just starting out, or having training in a modern engineering discipline, joining an existing preservation project is a great way to start collecting the required knowledge. Civil engineers and architects can look into the preservation of historic buildings, through local historical societies and trusts, while marine and mechanical engineers are often involved in restoring historical vessels and industrial technologies.

Peers jokes about the lack of a formal training or degree program for “fixing, maintaining, and operating old shit,” but it’s easy to see how doing so could better prepare engineers to take on work in other fields. Beyond developing a better understanding of technology and history, there are measurable skills one can challenge and train through preservation work. “One often has to think outside the box to keep it running in modern environments, on limited budgets,” Peers says. “One also has to seek out the answers, take it apart, think about it when faced with something you’ve never seen before and you are not finding those answers at the local library.”

“Innovation,” he concludes, “is just as easily there for old as it is new.”