As a Christmas present for my eight-year-old son, I bought a miniature hammerworks and had the rubber gaskets (Sw. packningar) on my old steam engine replaced. The gaskets dried out years ago, so it’s never been possible to get the vapour pressure up in it. To my knowledge, Samuel had never seen a steam engine run before Christmas Eve.
That morning, we gave the kids their presents, and Samuel didn’t really understand what the hammerworks was for. “Errr… Thanks Dad, this looks really… fun…” So I told him we actually had a functioning steam engine too, and then the present got a lot better. I pre-boiled water, explaining to Samuel how the energy in the fuel pellets came from the sun, via ancient plants and petroleum, and how the engine would allow us to put the energy to use in the hammerworks. We filled up the boiler, screwed shut the valves, lit a tablet, and then I told Samuel to wait until we had a little pressure.
The sound of boiling came from the brass tank… The tablet gave off a cozy coaly smell… I encouraged Samuel to spin the flywheel… And the look of shocked surprise on my kid’s face as the thing started was absolutely priceless, instantly turning into delight as the little machine revved up like a living thing, spitting hot water and making some serious noise. It got even better and louder when we hooked up the hammerworks: the three little hammers beat on a hollow sheet copper workbench that chimed like a little bell. With the steam whistle, the engine made a huge racket. Three-year-old Signe loved it too.
Steam engines are great toys: interactive, multisensual, instructive and pretty. In the early 80s my kid brother got a simple one, just a boiler with a safety valve, some copper tubing, a cylinder and a flywheel. Did it have a whistle? Then I bought the engine I still have from another boy: it’s a lot more fun, with a steam whistle, a gear shift so you can get the flywheel to spin in either direction, and tubes that lead excess steam from the cylinder into a fake chimney. Both machines were of the Mamod brand, and looking around the net I realise that both were simple low-end models. But still, they’re fun! Used 80s machines similar to my brother’s sell for $40-60 on eBay.
A childhood friend had a really pointless steam engine. His was driven with electricity. I’m not kidding: the boiler had electrical heating instead of a burner, with a cord you plugged into the wall. This engine was a lot larger and more impressive-looking than mine, but can you imagine a steam engine without the fire and the smell of the fuel? This kid grew up to become an engineer and ended up in the arms industry. Figures.