I’m drawn to B&W images. Perhaps its because I first shot B&W film. Maybe it reminds me of countless images hanging in numerous galleries I’ve visited. Sometimes it just brings back memories of a time when black and white images were what we were accustomed to.
Another time. Another place.
Gas blowing engines at the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, PA.
These generated electricity for the plant as well as high-pressure air for the blast furnaces. They were built in the 1890s and ran reliably, 24-hours a day 7 days a week, for 100 years. There are 12 engines, each one over 80 feet long, lined up in a row inside a 100′ x 540′ brick and steel building.
They were monstrous internal combustion engines that ran on waste gas (called “top gas”) from the blast furnaces. Each engine had two gas cylinders in tandem and an air cylinder (called an “air tub”) which fed into the cold blast mains to the furnaces.
There had been as many as 17 of these engines in a row. Suprisingly, they were not really all that noisy in operation. The sound created by the engines consisted of a repetitive “whooshing” sound caused by the operations of the intake and exhaust valves, plus a low background humming sound caused by the huge flywheels at the ends of the engines.
The main combustible component of blast furnace top gas was carbon monoxide. The huge size of these engines had to do with the fact that CO is not a terrific fuel, so a lot of it is required. The advantage of using it was simply that there was a lot of it available which, otherwise, would just be wasted.
The blowing engine operators could tell when there was a cooling water leak in one of the blast furnaces because it would add hydrogen to the top gas which would become apparent as a knocking sound in the engines. Thus, the blowing engine foreman could phone the blast furnace foreman to tell him there was a leak somewhere.
Once upon a time, The town of Bethlehem Pennsylvania echoed with the roar of blast furnaces, foundries and machinery of all sorts. Once upon a time America led the world in steel production. The steel mill has since been silenced and the town is just another small American town with an amazing history.