Seeing Monitor’s Steam Engine


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Last week I took a few minutes to visit the Conservation wet lab to visit Monitor‘s main engine, the first time I had seen it with the tank drained.

Before I say anything about this experience, I ought to say that I love steam engines, have loved them ever since I was a child.  Like so much nineteenth century technology, the steam engine seemed to me  imaginative, almost pre-scientific (though based on sound science).  I don’t know a thing about steam engines, honestly, but I love them because I find them beautiful.  Their movements are graceful, their lines and curves are elegant.  Their great exposed connecting rods, intricate gearing, the eliptical shapes of the eccentrics, have something of the animate about them.  In the extravagence of their movement, they seem improbable as machines, so unlike the completely restrained electrical motor.  One can be devoted to them easily.

When I visited the Ericsson vibrating lever engine at Conservation last Thursday, I did not expect to be touched by the experience.  After all, I have spent hours looking at plans and drawings of it, answering patrons queries about it, referring people to our copy of B.F. Isherwood’s Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering (with detailed information about the engines and boilers of both Monitor  and Merrimack).  When I finally saw the engine itself, I think I was actually thunderstruck.   Here was the wonderful muscle, the heart as Jeff Johnston said in the Daily Press, of Monitor herself (see the article,,0,2101784.story)!  Beautiful, extravagant, experimental, rash product of John Ericsson’s fervid imagination.  The thought that this engine could run again some day, an idea not completely out of the realm of possibility, gives me chills.

The Conservation Blog, at, will give the reader an excellent understanding of the treatments this engine is undergoing.  To understand this engine and appreciate its design and place in history, the Library has a wealth of resources.  But to love this engine, a reader need only imagine it in motion.

2 thoughts on “Seeing Monitor’s Steam Engine”

  1. The Monitor engine is truly a fascinating piece of American history, unique in many ways. When it is restored and placed on exhibit, it will surely attract a lot of attention, not only from steam engine nuts like you, Jay, but even from landlubbers when they grasp what this collection of pieces and parts was able to do in the 19th century!

    As a USCG licensed marine engineer, ships powered by steam turbines were what I generally operated, and they’re not much more interesting than the electric motors that you cite. Most of the newer ships have diesel engines, which are generally “enclosed” like the engine in a car and just about as easy to operate, so they ain’t very romantic either.

    Several of us Mariners’ Museum members particpated in a recent “Maritime Heritage Field Trip” to Baltimore, the centerpiece of which was a 6-hour cruise out onto the upper Chesapeake Bay aboard SS John W. Brown, one of two surviving operational WWII Liberty ships. The literature advertised “complete access to all areas of the ship,” which we took with a grain of salt,especially as regards the hot, noisy, and potentially dangerous engine room. Well, it was true! We had access to literally everything except for a 6×8 foot space around the helmsman on the “flying bridge”! We spent a lot of time down in the engine room, marveling at the monstrous triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine, which we could snuggle up to, real close and personal, as long as we didn’t try and stick our hand into the moving mechanisms. The whole ship was a fascinating look back in time, but the thing that warmed my heart was that engine (literally and figuratively)! If you ever have the opportunity, get yourself to Baltimore and onboard one of the three times a year she goes out to sea. You can get onboard almost every weekend, but sitting alongside the pier is not the same as being at sea!

  2. Jay – you’ve captured in words what I feel every time I see these wonderful pieces. I’m so glad you visited with the heart of the Monitor!

    And I echo Tom’s comments on the SS John W. Brown. I’ve had the good fortune to cruise on her twice now – and each time I have spent the bulk of my time in the engine room, purely fascinated by the beauty of it all. Dave Krop and I were able to marvel at the many similarities between it and our own little engine when we sailed – um….*steamed* – on her this past fall at the Maritime Heritage Conference.

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