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Engineering Wonders
Today Engineering Wonders often tend towards the micro scale but there was a time when huge steam powered lumbering beasts covered crept over the face of the world and changed it forever.
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Doesn't this look like fun?
surely top speed must be attained shortly after the cable snapped.

Indulge me a little longer. Once upon a time, in a land faraway there was a little boy called Franklyn.

I was young once, I did not know it at the time and even now I am younger than I think. Anyway in those far off days I used to play with Mecanno. That red and green stuff drilled full of holes where tiny little nuts and bolts could be screwed into place. All tightened up with crooked little spanners. Those were innocent days in many respects. Those metallic nuts and bolts look lethal today but at the time if you or the dog were stupid enough to swallow a few of the things then that was your look out. Certainly it was not time to go to court over the whole incident.

The front of the box always showed a healthy looking child, whose skin must have been constructed from highly polished apple peel smiling at some wondrously gleaming construction. Inside the box the metal did not gleam quite as much but there were some wildly complicated plans as to how you could make some cranes and the like.

My complexion had more than a passing resemblance to builders putty rather than healthy apples but I would have looked like parchment by the time I had mastered some of the stuff shown in those plans.

Like most youngsters I built things which required more imagination than most to realize what it actually was and given enough imagination it was anything you liked.

There was only one problem, unless you got it right you ran out of pulleys long before you ran out of uses for them and reverse engineering the project was a lot more complex than sticking it together in the first place. Your parents might have thought the child on the box looked the picture of health but to you it was more like a devil in disguise (and not much of a disguise). Those cheeks were reddened in the fires of hell.

Those were the days though; you made stuff. If you swallowed a couple of bits and pieces it was an occupational hazard.

It was a this childhood experience which came to mind when I say Wills, Engineering Wonders [1927] 50 cards which hark from an age when getting your hand hammered flat by a darn great steam hammer could be cause for a day or two off work but if you wanted to get paid you better get back.

Card 16 illustrates a hydraulic press which if you got caught in it the loss of a hand would probably be the least of your worries. Capable of exerting a pressure of 6000 tons it belonged to the British Armour Plate works at the Armstrong Whitworth Works. The base of the card mentions this sort of pressure bends steel with the greatest of ease. I bet it does and just about everything else you care to put into it, like a fair sized house by the look of it.

It was a time when machines were growing bigger than the men that built them and alienation was becoming an ever greater part of the working experience as craftsmen were replaced by production line methods. A good case could be made to suggest these things were more terror than wonder

How much fun would meccano have been if you had been reduced to tightening up one bolt 500 times in one day and never really knew what the boy sitting next to you was working on. No fun at all, that's how much. Adam Smith might have seen the virtue of specialistation when it came to making nails but he did not realise just how tedious a task could become.

In 1927 a lot of the people smoking Wills Woodbine and spewing out of the factory gates would have been working with these machines, many would have remembered the old days and often were sensible enough to remember them as bad old days.

A number of the cards could have that demonic child grinning in the background somewhere, lit in an unholy light looking down on the engineering marvel which will span the British Empire.

There are a good number bridges in the set, of all shapes and sizes (actually for size read big to bigger) cards 2,3,4,5,12 are bridges. The fact that four cards out of the first five are bridges give the effect there are loads.

The level of detail of the cards is excellent, in fact it is staggering really, certainly jpeg web graphics are not the way to truly appreciate it. The reverse of the card tells you all about it and the country from whence it came. There is also an interesting subsection idea on the reverse of the set which groups the engineering wonders. For example, (a) Bridge construction, (g) Harbours, Reservoirs etc. Quite why they felt that was necessary is unknown to me.

Anyway there is only so much to say about the things and I have said enough.

Card 37 is the revolving floating crane (Great Britain) is just the sort of thing I would have been constructing (in my mind at least) and in fact I remember pages of detailed instructions of how to do it.

This crane could lift 350 tons as it floated about on water, which always impressed my tiny mind. Quite how it lifted anything without just sinking was a wonder in itself (okay I was young).

Card 47 has to be mentioned as it is a huge snow-plough that fixes on the front of a train and chews through snow drifts and spit them out in the most fearful of fashions. Someone somewhere had something of a fixation with these things.

This machine appears again and again on cigarette cards. I was going to say it was someone at the Imperial Tobacco Company but the other day I noticed there was one on the Gallaher, Trains of the World set so that ended that idea. Mind you if this was a crime novel we would eventually find an employee that moved from one firm to the next and the crime spree would be ended. Look for the fellow with snow on his hands.

Quite often I am forced to marvel at the speed and efficiency with which we keep our road network going. I know roadworks are a favourite complaint amongst motorists but for me it is a minor inconvenience. Very little traffic is about in the early hours of the morning and the contra-flow system through endless sodium lights and massive machinery is no real problem for me.

Huge machines which heat and eat the road are followed by machines that put down another road surface, it can even be one and the same machine. All this is a far cry from the good old days although card 46 has a road making motor from the US which certainly is a distant relative to the things we see on the roads today.

The roads were growing in importance but the railways was where it really was happening and as I mentioned previously there was endlessly specialised machines going up and down these things. Card 42 shows just such a specialised machine, Wrecking Crane (Great Britain). Its job was to get obstructions of the track as fast as possible.

More often than not these obstructions were trains which had crashed or derailed. Such things were not exactly common practice but equally rather more common than you would want them to be. The card also notes the crane performs much useful work with the rebuilding of railway bridges (note it does not say building) which can only tend to suggest something solid hit them.

Right next to this card is an aerial railway. I have only been in one of these things and that was probably one too many. I don't mind terrific heights but when the ground is visible, and discernible, as to what it is things are not so funny, especially as you are lurching along in a rather thin cabin as it swings about in the wind.

Also I have grown up on a diet of disaster movies involving these things one way or another. At the very base of the card it mentions the comforting fact that it has really powerful brakes which are capable of bringing the vehicle to a standstill when traveling at full speed.

Yes, well, that is a bit of non-speak if ever there was one and probably designed to give just enough momentary comfort to bundle the passengers onto the thing. What is the breaking distance this would be achieved when falling vertically and surely top speed must be attained shortly after the cable snapped.

Continued Overleaf : Steel and Water

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Related pages
Modern Wonders
World Wonders

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Saturday, 17th May 2008