Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bench 23

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL: This journal entry is meant to mark a significant moment in my photographic vigil of the demise of the Last Brass Mill. 

The machine in this picture is an expansion bench. Until last fall Rudy, Randy, and Ray ran this machine regularly. (Whew!) Extruded, seamless tube is repeatedly reworked cold on expansion benches and draw benches to bring it to the desired specification for the job. In the foreground Ray pushes buttons to work elevators that position the tube.  In the background Rudy controls a hydraulic valve that puts immense pressure behind the ram. Between them the ram is part way through the tube and is making it bulge. It traverses a tube in under five seconds, like a snake swallowing a mouse, increasing the diameter of the tube and evenly stretching the wall. In the far background are two, large electric motors. Once, one of them turned a hydraulic pump that applied the muscle to the hydraulic fluid behind the ram.

Hiram Hayden was famous for revolutionizing pot-making, and he was reputed to hold more patents than anyone else in Brass Valley. He was the embodiment of the inventive brass entrepreneur in a world that was just inventing engineering. In the early days, pots were hammered out in a “battery.” Battery workers usually were deaf long before they were dead. Hiram Hayden made better pots with machines that could spin them and shape them instead of battering them. It is not surprising, then, that he was also a pioneer in the making of seamless tube. He understood how cold metal flows and how to fit the wheels and gears and engines to do it.

The plans for this bench are in the factory offices nearby; they are dated 1905. Hiram Hayden died the year before.  The year before that the Wright brothers flew. This bench may have been here already at the start of World War I, when a new factory shed was built for an expanding tube mill to meet war’s rising production targets. Perhaps significantly, that the tube mill butts against an 1880s era, four-story factory that was built by Holmes, Booth, & Haydens to make burners for oil lamps. It was likely repurposed for tube-making as the world electrified and tube milling began below. It is not hard to imagine that Hayden and the men who pioneered the technology for making tube seamlessly, did so in the old lamp factory, and that the original equipment put in place here in the new tube mill was built and installed under the direct supervision of many of those innovators. It is a formative place for Brass Valley to finally expire. One might almost call it a holy land.

In the background, Rudy's controls are like no others. He adjusts the hydraulic pressure to the ram by turning a great wheel that sits horizontally, like the steering wheel on a city bus, but cast metal and heavy-looking. And the chair that Rudy sits on is made of welded metal and is fastened to the floor. It is an odd thing, inhuman in its engineered rigidity and with a high back out of all human proportion.

The homemade chair is a mystery. Perhaps the swing of the great wheel required such force that chairs made of wood were being turned to matchsticks. Or maybe the great wheel was at one time turned by a “big wheel,” who the engineers thought to honor with a throne. If so, it is a story that's lost. One of the men doing salvage work at the factory pointed out the back was made of expanded metal. Expanded metal was developed, patented and first marketed around 1889; it is an interesting use, a parody of wicker for a world of metal workers. 

Friday while I was shooting at the mill, the salvage men began removing the expansion bench. It will take awhile to cut it from the floor. They said it will be going to a factory in Mexico. If labor there remains cheap and the laws governing working conditions and pollution remain lax, the expansion bench may still be turning out seamless tube for another hundred years.

I’ve avoided discussion of the cold processing of tube on the blog as it will be treated in my book when it appears next spring. I’ve made an exception here as the occasion demanded recognition.