Engine Room Elegy
From The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna

Engine of SS COURIER, 1888
Triple expansion engine from SS Courier of 1888 would have been about the same vintage described below.

Engine of SS COURIER, 1888He made another slow circuit of the engine room, looking at the engine this time. It was triple expansion with the familiar double bar link gear, but very old, dating back to the days when they could not make fine steel and cast iron and made up for it by size. It was a big, heavy engine and it filled the center of the engine room, with the cylinder block rising above the gratings and the crank pits going deep below the floorplates, a three-level engine, but it was probably not very powerful. It was just heavy and old-fashioned and it likely took most of its power just to move itself, Holman thought.

It was massive and it was well and truly made, he saw. The three pairs of cast-iron columns measured about two feet on a side and the great clumsy shaft couplings were six inches thick. The bearing shells were all heavy, smooth brass and he could not span round the connecting rods with both his hands. All the ordered maze of working parts [was] cleanly oiled and softly shining under the lights, and that was looksee pidgin, which told nothing about how well it would run, but a warm feeling went out from Holman to the engine and his hands lingered on the sculptured metal.

"Hello, engine," he said softly.

The main condenser was on a large white cylinder that lay aft of the engine like the crossbar of a T. The drain well was displaced to port to make it room for the shaft to run beneath the condenser and the squat, long thrust bearing rose aft of the condenser. The main circulator and the main air pump snugged into the angles of the T on either side and it made a queer arrangement, but a very neatly balanced one. Forward on the starboard side was the throttle station and a log desk with a metal gauge board up behind it. The clock read two-fifteen. Holman stood for a moment and with one hand on the throttle wheel overhead and one on the reversing lever.

"Hey, engine," he said softly. "Hey, engine!"

It was a fine, handsome old engine, much older than Jake Holman himself. He looked at it, massive, dully gleaming brass and steel in columns and rods and links arching above drive rods from twinned eccentrics, great crossheads hung midway, and above them valve spindles and piston rods disappearing into the cylinder block. He knew them all, each part and its place in the whole, and his eye followed the pattern, three times repeated from forward to aft, each one-third of the circle out of the phase, and it was all poised and balanced there like three chunks of frozen music. Under his controlling hands, when they steamed, it was going to become a living, speaking music. Under his tender hands, with oil can and grease swab. Under his tender hands, with hammer and wrench and scraper.

Steve McQueen with engine in the SAND PEBBLES film
"Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman," he said under his breath.

Jake Holman loved machinery in the way some other men loved God, women, and their country. He loved main engines most of all, because they were the deep heart and power center of any ship and all the rest was trimming, much of it useless.

-- The Sand Pebbles, First Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 4f.


Chien and coolies repair the engine in THE SAND PEBBLES - Copyright 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox
Chien, the boss engine room coolie, at work with artificers overhauling a faulty bearing.
Copyright © 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.