Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Baldwin Locomotive Works 1831-1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice, by John K. Brown

As I've mentioned several times before here on this blog, I'm a bit of a maniac when it comes to trains so it should be absolutely no surprise to anyone that I picked up a history book which talks about locomotive construction. And if you needed further evidence that this one's going to be a dry read, you merely need look at the title: The Baldwin Locomotive Works 1831-1915 A Study in American Industrial Practice. A title that simple and yet also long can only belong to an incredibly thorough and well-researched monograph and in that respect I was not disappointed. I will warn everyone right away this book will probably be best survived by people who have a strong interest in nineteenth century industrialization, or the most ardent of railroad fanatics.

To provide a summary for my readers who probably aren't as train-obsessed as I am: Baldwin Locomotive Works was a Philadelphia-based company and one of the first American builders of locomotives. Over the years it would become the most successful American builder, controlling over a third of the total market, and by the time it ceased locomotive production in 1956 it had produced over 70,000 locomotives. Throughout this time Baldwin grew from a fairly small plant to an absolutely enormous facility, and yet as Brown illustrates many of its structures remained largely unchanged from the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite its size, Baldwin didn't incorporate until 1909, remaining for much of its history a partnership which required reorganization as partners joined or departed the firm. However for much of its history, Brown argues effectively that these were critical strengths for Baldwin rather than weaknesses, at least until dramatic changes almost no one in the railroad industry predicted occurred in the 1920's.

As Brown points out very on, Baldwin and other locomotive builders are rather different from the famous American System businesses and corporations which have been the focus of so much historiographic effort. Much of the focus has been placed on producers of raw materials, such as steel mills, or producers of consumer goods such as sewing machines. These industries benefitted from automation, standardization, and economies of scale. And, perhaps more importantly, they were far more resilient in the frequent economic shocks that punctuated American history through the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Baldwin Locomotive Works, by contrast, was a constructor of capital goods: large, expensive, and extremely complicated devices which were major purchases for railroads. When times were good, Baldwin was flushed with orders, as railroads scrambled to obtain more motive power for the increased traffic. When times were bad, railroads forgoed capital purchases, reducing Baldwin's workload to a trickle. This resulted in Baldwin relying on a number of strategies, such as laying off significant portions of its workforce and cultivating export markets, to weather these dry spells before demand returned once again.

Further complicating this is the sheer difficulty of producing a steam locomotive. One of the main contributions America gave the nineteenth century was the development of interchangeable parts. First developed in Federal Armories to make parts from one rifle capable of repairing another rifle, the idea of standard and interchangeable parts made repairs incredibly simple and drove down the costs of numerous consumer and industrial goods. As much as interchangeable parts would be a boon to locomotives, and no matter how much locomotive builders attempted to incorporate the idea, steam locomotives would consistently defy such attempts due to their very nature, which I thought was a really interesting part of this book.

As Brown explains, although locomotive builders such as Baldwin tried to design and sell ''standard'' products, ultimately it was the railroads that decided when and what sort of locomotives would be built based upon the needs of their railroad and all too often the builders had to either meet these needs or go without business. As such the majority of locomotives were custom-built for railroads depending on their specifications and suggestions. Builders such as Baldwin would try to incorporate standard parts such as valves and fittings as much as possible, with some degree of success, but the sheer plethora of locomotive designs made this a difficult task. In addition to the varieties of locomotive to build, there was also a great amount of variety within types, ranging from narrow gauge to broad gauge and everywhere inbetween.

On top of this, locomotives were constantly evolving over time as well. Although the 4-4-0 American type locomotive would be dominant for the latter half of the nineteenth century, from 1850 to 1880 it would grow in size and strength, with larger and heavier boilers, cylinders, and driver wheels increasing its tractive force. However in a quest for bigger and better locomotives, the 4-4-0 would eventually be supplanted by the 4-4-2 Atlantic. Which of course would then in turn be replaced by the 4-6-2 Pacific. And this doesn't even begin to touch on the dozens of other wheel arrangements experimented with or developed during this time period. Steam locomotive design and development was a constant process, which ultimately reached a fevered pitch in the glory days of the early twentieth century, before economic troubles and the arrival of practical diesel power heralded the end of steam power. Baldwin and many other locomotive builders were so wrapped up in the struggle to produce bigger and better steam locomotives that they were completely unable to adapt to the rapid changes diesel power brought.

Overall I found this book a fascinating read, although that's probably because of my great interest in railroad history more than anything else. If it's about trains you've got me hooked. Even as an avid rail enthusiast I found this book very dry and technical and I think only the most interested of audiences will get something approaching enjoyment out of it. However, it's very well researched and Brown does a good job of exploring an area of history that hasn't garnered much attention and detailing how locomotive construction is inherently different from so many other industries. Even if he gets a little opinionated in some areas, which is something I'm noticing in railroad historians.

- Kalpar

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