A Million Hours’ Running Time
During the summer of 1900 three fine new steam engines arrived in Brooklyn from the Ames Iron Works of Oswego, New York, and went into service spinning the generators that supply power to Pratt Institute. They’re still there.
Pratt has a great school of engineering, but these machines are not maintained out of reverence for the industrial past; they earn their keep. All through the winter months, the steam that heats the campus passes first through their fourteen-inch cylinders. Each engine is directly connected to a General Electric 75-kilowatt generator, and these feed 120-volt direct current to the campus, as they have since McKinley was President.
The Pratt Institute Power Generating Plant is the oldest continually operating works of its kind in America, and it is every bit as eloquent a monument to nineteenth-century engineering as is the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. The engines are big; they are marvelously handsome in their livery of maroon and gold; yet what is initially most impressive about them is their quiet . One tends to think of the great machines of the last century building the modern world amid terrible din, but in fact a noisy powerhouse is a product of the internal combustion era. In the Pratt plant, the pistons slide and the flywheels whirl with an equable, ruminative clicking. “They’re noisier than they should be,” says Conrad Muster, Pratt’s chief engineer. “You could get these engines to the point where you literally couldn’t hear them from across the room. But in a few days they’d sound like this again —and then they’d go along for months. Between them, they’ve had over a million hours of running time. Nothing’s exactly square or round any more.”
Conrad Muster’s is not a job with a high turnover; he’s just the fourth man to hold it since the original plant opened in 1887. “I made friends with my shop teacher in high school,” he says, flicking a practiced glance toward the glass cups that feed oil to the main bearings. “He taught nights at Pratt and, after 1 graduated, he had me come out and showed me this place. I got so enthusiastic that the chief engineer asked me if I wanted a job. I thought it might be fun for a year, maybe two. That was in 1957.”
A quarter-century has made Muster as easy with his machines as are the many cats that wander with negligent care through the flailing steel. He can judge the health of the equipment simply by listening to it: “That’s the most important thing—to listen. Trouble first shows up when the noise changes. If it usually goes ker-plunk ker-plunk, and then it starts going ker-bonk ker-bonk, something’s wrong.” For the most part, though, the engines require only “passive maintenance,” perhaps an hour a day of tuning. Always, however, there is polishing to be done. Every element of the plant has brass in its makeup, and all of it sparkles. “That’s not just for show,” says Muster. “When you keep the brass shined, it means you’re touching working parts every day. It’s another very good way to spot trouble early.”
Milster’s authority extends beyond his own immaculate plant. A highly knowledgeable student of industrial archaeology, he writes frequently for specialist publications, and his intimate knowledge of Pratt’s machines brings him close to the spirit of the age that built them. “Look at that main frame,” he says. “It flows up to the cylinder. That’s not mechanically necessary. But it’s aesthetically necessary. Those people took enormous pride in what they were building.” He gestures to the gray marble switchboard. “I found a sticker behind that a few years ago. It had a number on it and it said to remember to mention that number when you sent for another marble panel to enlarge your board. That way, they could make sure the color matched perfectly!”
It’s too late now to get another order from the same quarry, but Muster spends a good deal of time adding to his inventory of vintage parts: two Westinghouse air compressors—one from 1906, one from 1896—a big duplex pump that fed the boilers of the City Investing Building from 1906 to 1965, and a huge variety of gaugeboards and generators.
“It’s not really my job,” he says, looking over the technological miscellany he has assembled from doomed buildings. “My first job is to run an efficient power plant. But if I can run an efficient museum power plant, why not?”
The engines tick along. “You know,” says Muster, “the engineering students never come by any more. It’s all abstract now. None of them have to turn a nut. They don’t care. But the art students— they’re here sketching all the time.”