Endangered geeks frolic at the North American Model Engineering Exhibition
In a recent Washington Post column (5/10/05) by Marylou Tousignant, news is related of a recent discovery in Florence, Italy, of a workshop of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).[~/1] In January, Rome hosted a large exhibition of Leonardo's drawings of flying machines and other inventions, including working models of what he imagined.
From Ms. Tousignant's column,
"Items [Leonardo] has been credited with designing or imagining: diving suit, tank, bicycle, contact lenses, clock with a minute hand, inflatable shoes to walk on water, fire-thrower, steam-powered gun, helicopter, submarine, hang glider, parachute, and what is thought to be history's first self-propelled vehicle.
"If da Vinci were alive today and living next door, you'd likely find him a fascinating but odd fellow…"
And you might find him exhibiting a hot air engine made from tin cans, cardboard, and bailing rope at the North American Model Engineering Exhibition! This year, 2005, the event is held for the 16th time at the Southgate Civic Center in Southgate, Michigan.
A former engineering buddy of mine with geek tendencies, call him Ford-Lincoln-Mercury (for the young idealist in the underappreciated movie, The Postman… and because he gathers and restores antique Ford products), plans to attend. He picks me up in his pickemup on a rainy Saturday morning, and we drive 15 miles to the site.
First thing that's evident is the event's popularity; it takes us a quarter of an hour to simply find a parking spot. Then a long walk in the cold drizzle brings us into a large auditorium, where we plunk down a nominal ten-dollarish fee. We walk into the exhibit area: It's as if every slide-rule-packing, rolled-up-Popular-Mechanics junkie you ever knew in high school has gathered in annual homage to the god of the machine. Only the hair is graying.
A Satanic cult worshipping historic industrial hardware? A Burning Man festival for wistful middle-aged gearheads?
No, more like a ritualistic redemption ceremony for all the guys who realized they'd never be in the same 90210 as the prom queen. So they took out their frustrations on cold steel. "Kissing don't last, reciprocating engines do." To call the amassed true believers "modelers," is an understatement: half the exhibits are engines of one kind or another… that actually run!
That's right. At least a couple of vintage V8 engines adorn the tables and their proud owners readily succumb to public pressure to crank them up. It seems every ten minutes the room reverberates with a PA-PA-POW-PA-PA-POW cacophony from the 1/4 scale powerplants. Man, they're LOUD! We saw—and heard—a small-block Chevrolet OHV V8, scale model of the late 1950s 283 cu. in. engine and a Ford "flat head" V8, scale model of the late 1940s 233 cu. in. engine.
The miniature engines work but inertia is one of the things that doesn't scale linearly. Thus, lacking a suitably massive flywheel, the revolutions have to be kept up or the engine will stall; none of these engines lopes along at idle speed.
The majority of the displays are engines, and the majority of engines are one-cylinder. These are often called "Hit and Miss" engines, because their speed governor system cuts out the ignition intermittently to control the speed under varying load.
You can easily imagine a world full of Lilliputians—or maybe Hobbits—using this hardware plowing fields, bailing hay, pumping water, turning wind vanes, driving cars, and performing hundreds of mechanical tasks to liberate our not-to-distant ancestors from day-to-day drudgery. The exhibition is a celebration of Yankee ingenuity.
Indeed, the North American Model Engineering Society (NAMES) got its start as the Group of 12, in and around the Motor City (Detroit) area 16 years ago. Many of the 12 had roots in the United Kingdom, where shows for model builders and model lovers were more common. Thus, the ingenuity I speak of is not so much Yankee-derived as from the tinkering English-speaking peoples, in general.
Just as the field of engineering itself, NAMES is a male-dominated affair. The women are mainly present in supporting (i.e., indispensable) roles. It's been my observation, in general, women don't carry the "obsessive" gene. This is the one that drives men to pursue golf, fly-fishing, antique model building and other such obsessions that have no clear immediate practical purpose.
But like most natural fraternities, the engineering modeling one isn't about ethnicity or gender, rather the shared love of the art. Anyone who shares the love or the art qualifies. Today, laid out in the two big halls—each booth is equipped with its own set of lines of pressurized air—a couple of hundred masterpieces are proudly unveiled by their creators to the many who come to pay tribute.
From Canada to California to Louisiana to Florida, many are called. And unlike some gathering with your local politician, these people have something worthwhile to say. We spend ten minutes with a retired Ford engineer who tells us everything we ever wanted to know about steam tables. No matter, it pays to be a good listener.
The similarity between the fabulous machinery operating here and the culture of historical reenactments is striking. Like Greenfield Village, these exhibitions are an intimate history of "our kind." A tinge of nostalgia is unavoidable, at least for me. My friend, of Canuckian origin, gets a tear in his beer thinking back on the most remarkable exhibit:
"You might mention the old guy (in his 80s I think) that is building the 1/6 scale model of a 1929 Duesenberg car. He is approx. 50% complete and has been working on it for 6 years. Each wire wheel has individual wire spokes and the engine, transmission, brakes, etc. will be completely operational when complete. You have several good photos of it."
Well, at least one, as photographed above. The gentleman and his wife responsible for the Duesenberg creation had to be asked for their business card; it wasn't lying out on the table in plain sight. (Lou and June Chenot of Carl Junction, MO.) By the way, the actual Duesenberg automobile was built in America, out of St. Paul, Minnesota, by Fred and August Duesenberg in the early 1900s.
In this electronic age of mind-numbing hype, more mind-numbing hype, and mind-numbing hype on top of mind-numbing hype, how refreshing to return to an age in which machines were largely hand-crafted labors of love. And it's refreshing to be around the soft-spoken guys with the twinkle in their eyes, as they discuss the significance of these beauties.
There are so many displays of fascinating hardware, you hardly know where to begin… or to end. (Ref. the radial engine photo on the left.) Train and tractor replicas abound. Casting, forging, milling, and turning technologies are advertised in several booths.
All the systems and subsystems required to make the models are here to be checked out. Taken as a whole they amount to an industry of their own. A more knowledgeable bunch of caring people you will not find on the planet. I'm going to leave the reader with a list of some of the business cards I picked up, and ads from in the daily program:
- Historic Models and Reproductions, L.L.C.—featuring model steam engines, castings kits, reproductions, pattern making, machining. Dennis and Sandra Howe, Brighton, MI
- Red Wing Motor Co.—model engines. Richard Dickey, Lead Hill, AR
- WHC Classics—hot air engine fans, casting kits. Wade Connell, Duluth, MN
- Fire Eating Engines—designs and drawings for hot air engines. Dick Saunders, 145 Delhi Road, Manchester, IA 52057 (no cyberinfo apparent)
- Ageless Engines—radial engine plans and castings. Lee Hodgson, Cincinnati, OH
- Martin Model & Pattern—pattern and model making, turning, castings, carving, duplicating, and antique reproductions. Gary Martin, Portland, OR
- MjN Fabrication—ignition systems for model IC engines. Mike Neal, Dover, FL
- D&E Model Drawings—1/3 scale working model Gatling Gun plans (!). Kentwood, LA
- Pacific Model Design—antique model engines. Bend, OR
There are far too many of these to list here, and I apologize to the people I haven't mentioned. The Pacific Model Design company is particularly interesting, because if you go to the site you learn what motivates people to be in this line of art:
"Bob [Bromps] is a trained mechanical engineer specializing in machine design and has finally reached the goal of retirement (semi), and can now devote more time to the important things in life. Bob built his first engine in the early 50's in high school machine shop and has been building ever since.
"And now he has three generations involved with Bob's grandson now building his first model steam engine."
NAMES and associates: keeping the flame alive and keeping it in the family.
I recall a quote from one of Ayn Rand's characters—or perhaps it was Ayn Rand herself—to the effect that a machine is the essence of humanity (by which she means the best of humanity) containing nothing arbitrary or without purpose.
For antique machinery, the humane gesture is more grand. And more earthy. If anyone has seen the movie with Robert Redford, The Natural, you'll understand when I say that the NAMES connection reminds me of the spirit of that movie. It was a time in America when honesty still had a lot of dishonesty to overcome. But the difference between the two back then was crystal clear. And most of us were confident honesty would win.
Don't forget the 2006 event: Exhibition will be held in Bowling Green, Ohio, April 29, 30.
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