Preserving the past with the near future. / Nov 21st 2012

tl;dr For the past few months we’ve been exploring how we can use emerging/partly emerged technology to help in the preservation/recording of a very special steam locomotive.

This is Winifred. She is in many ways a very ordinary steam locomotive, however through a quirk of fate she is quite extraordinary.

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She was built in 1885 for the Penrhyn Slate Quarry. For most of her 80 year working life, she worked at Port Penrhyn helping in the transfer of finished slates to be transported around the world. Later she was moved to the bleak conditions of the levels where men and dynamite relieved the mountain of its slate. Britain built much of the industrial revolution; the Welsh slate industry put a roof over it. 

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Image shown by kind permission from Ted McAvoy

Nowadays an 80 year working lifespan for a utilitarian object such as Winifred would seem amazing. She is effectively a Victorian era tractor. The culture of engineering and make do and mend is largely to thank for her existence. She started working in the age of Queen Victoria and, thanks to regular repairs, finished working in during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. She has worked through two world wars.

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In 1965 the Penrhyn Quarry decided to sell its steam locomotives and the BBC showed a short piece by Fife Robertson on the sale and at this point Winifred’s journey from humble to celebrity began. An American antiquities dealer saw the piece and bought six of the locomotives and had them shipped to the USA. There, an American businessman called Tony Hulman, who ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, bought Winifred and two other locomotives for a museum which sadly, but fortunately for us, never really happened. Winifred after 2 years on display, during which no restoration was performed, was then placed in perfectly dry storage in the shadow of the grandstands and a short distance from the famous Indy 500 yard of bricks. There she sat for over 40 years, sleeping through the advent of the personal computer, digital photography, the commercial applications of lasers, the internet, the mobile phone and all the technology which we now see as normality and all of that which soon will be.

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In 2012 thanks to the efforts of Julian Birley, and a promise to the Hulman estate that she will be restored sensitively, she has returned as a time capsule contained in a shipping container. We are now introducing her to all of the technology that she missed out on seeing arrive with the aim of getting the most accurate record possible of her extraordinary condition.

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She is almost exactly as she was in 1965. Time has stood still for her. When you see her condition you realise you are in a room with the past. It is quite extraordinary and very moving. The remains of the final fire of her working life is in the firebox.

There is still a mixture of slate dust, ash and coal on the footplate.

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Her paintwork shows where she has interacted with people in their every day work and the Welsh countryside during the course of her working life.

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Her brass displays the patina caused by the hands of her drivers and the harsh weather conditions.

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The driver’s side of her cab shows where the driver rested his foot as he went about his day’s work.

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The seal of the capsule has been broken and now the only thing to do is to try and create a record which will act as a time capsule for future generations to enjoy. They will probably scoff at the crudeness of the recording, but hopefully will be pleased that we captured as much data as we could.

The first parts of the recording are now almost complete. We have used a laser scanner and gigapixel photography to get as accurate a record of her geometry and condition as possible. The next part of the recording which we’ll do over the next year to 18 months will be to photograph all of the parts as they come off the locomotive and scan many of them. This will enable us to create a full catalogue of the locomotive and to have a complete record to use when she is put her back together again, just as she is now, with a few extra surprises about how life expired parts will be replaced along the way.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the laser scanning part of this process.

(Also see part 3 where we print the train)

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