Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Steam Engines!

On Sunday  Mr Tabubil and I, and Sarah and her husband Miles drove out to Booleroo  to spend the day at the annual Booleroo Steam and Traction Rally!
            Booleroo is a small farming town over on the other side of the Flinders Ranges, and the Booleroo Steam And Traction Society is a club for men and women devoted to steam power.  Once a year they throw a party for steam engines, steam-rollers, steam tractors, steam trucks - everything with a big rattly pulse and a plume of water vapor streaming out high and hot.
            There was a shed full of boilers, a barn full of diesel engines, and an airplane engine going full rattling bore out next to the oval.  
            And a parade of tractors, of course, all vintages.

Mr Tabubil, who rates engines (especially steam engines) somewhere up above computers on his personal scale of "WoWEEEEE!" spent the day skipping happily through paddocks and taking home videos of steam-traction-engines huffing and puffing and pulling things.  
            Two traction engines staged a plowing demonstration for us in a paddock. The setup was very simple - an engine at each end of the paddock, a traction line running between the two and a plow tied in at the middle.  The plow bit its teeth into the soil and the engines winched it swiftly back and forth between them, bumping it across the paddock on hoop-like iron wheels.
            A man with a microphone told us that back in pre-diesel times  this setup ran on a crew of twenty men -  firemen, wood-choppers, plow-operators, engine drivers - it took an army to make this monster run!

The amazing part of all this is that it is all so new - mechanization has only happened within the last few generations.  Books and magazines are full of first-hand accounts of the first time an engine came to the farm: an army of men, and a great metal monster clanking and rattling and chewing up the crops at a speed that could barely be comprehended.  It was a world changer.

In the grass behind us, a thin ribbon of quicksilver rippled across the grass.  An old man with an amen beard swooped.  
            "Snake."  He grunted.  "Brown snake.  A young one."
            Carefully he parted the grass stems to show us the stripes of red and black across the neck, just below the diamond head.
           "Pretty."  I said.  "Is it venomous yet?"
            "A full load."  He picked up a length of fence-post and drove it hard down onto the snakes head.  "But not anymore."
            Australians have no time for snakes.  Venomous ones anyway.  They're not particularly concerned about the ecology - when they see a snake they see dead dogs and dead children and they deal with it accordingly.

The men in the field unhitched the plow and hooked up a scoop - a brobdingnangian iron shovel, and ran it back and forth across a patch of soft earth.  Once upon a day they used these things to dig dams - and THAT was a world changer in it's own way in this dry country.  Before the steam arrived, dams were dug with picks and shovels.  It was mortally slow,  backbreaking work, and seeing this great iron thing shoving back and forth across the ground, swallowing an hours worth of work in one sweep -
That's something worth cheering.

My favorite machines ran on man-power.  In a small corral, an old truck was surrounded by a collection of metal frames- devices that would help a man raise a loaded sack from the ground to up to a track or wagon bed.
            They were so ELEGANT - a simple semicircular rocker, a hinged pivot, a counter-weighted elevator -lean, spare functional design without the room or time for breakdowns or critical bits going PING! when the truck needed loading.

By contrast, Mr Tabubil and Miles are engineers and they love the mechanical excesses of early steam engines -boilers bolted to a hundred gleaming cogs and arms that spin and whir and crank and do go PING, that are held together with a hundred thousand iron rivets, and shake and rattle and ooze steam and dribble water from the seams  and ash from the firebox  - they're BAROQUE.  Gaudy, almost.  And rather appealing in a workaday world of welds and vacuum-molded safety covers and matte grey rust-proof paint.

And this steam-powered truck has a wood box next to the drivers seat.

The diesels just didn't have the wow-factor - howsoever venerable their lineage.

The tractor parade was comprehensive - exhaustive, even - but the spanking painted art deco wheelhouses and modern caterpillar-treads just couldn't hold a candle to the steam engines.

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