American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960

American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960
William L. Withuhn

Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 2019
452 pp., 50 ills. b/w. Trade, $40.00
ISBN: 978-0-253-03933-0.

Reviewed by
John F. Barber
February 2020

American Steam Locomotives: Design and Development, 1880-1960 by William L. Withuhn would, at first glance, seem not best suited for review in this venue. Steam locomotives in the digital age? But consider these points. The subject is an excellent overlay of science, technology, and art. The artifact of this collusion stills figures prominently in our technological, historical, and popular cultures. The author was the curator of transportation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and a licensed locomotive engineer. As result, this tome, and that is the correct term, is both an authoritative reference and an engaging read.

Operationally, the steam locomotive is straightforward. Boilers produce steam that power pistons that propel driving wheels. This simple machinery was the literal engine behind the Industrial Revolution. Designers and engineers shaped, honed, and polished this simplicity into steam locomotives that in America became national symbols of progress and power, transportation across the country's span, even rolling art. It is this story, the overlay of mechanical engineering and design art, technological achievement and usability that Withuhn documents as engaging and accessible narrative. The scholarship should also be noted. American Steam Locomotives seeks to provide comprehensive access to information and insight regarding steam locomotives throughout American history, from their large scale introduction into commerce, transportation, and culture in the 1860s onward to their replacement by diesel technology in the 1960s.

There is a great deal of technology discussed in this book, including the quest for thermal efficiency, trailing trucks, metallurgy, three-cylinder power delivery, and driving wheel counterbalancing, which Withuhn describes as a combination of science, pseudoscience, and black art.

Withuhn also considers aesthetic design, documenting and discussing the mechanical standards of numerous railroads, and the way in which these standards resulted in distinctive and characteristic looks for their locomotives. These machines were shaped as much by their engineering function as their economic purposes and the aesthetic considerations of the people who built them. The steam locomotives of America were works of art, from high-wheeled drivers of the 1860s to streamlined mid-twentieth century modernism, comparable to works in clay, wood, or marble.

Beyond objectiveness, as an historian, Withuhn is also interested in people and how their strengths and fallibilities contributed to the story of steam technology in America. Readers will find revealing contributions from designers, mechanics, and engineers, and learn how they left their imprints on steam locomotives.

It is all quite a story, and Withuhn relays it equally well for a range of readers, from the mechanical engineer to the casual fan. He tells his story in clear language, providing both details and entertaining narrative, thinking always of his audience. At one point, while picking through minutiae and technical details, Withuhn, thoughtfully and generously, tells readers who may be getting bogged down with the heavy going to skip ahead to the next chapter! Thirty years in writing and completed after his death in 2017 by a team of admirers, American Steam Locomotives is a significant contribution to the canon of steam.

By mid-twentieth century, some 70,000 steam locomotives operated throughout America. Railroads employed two million people, while industry, mining, and agriculture were dependent on a nationwide rail distribution system. Railroads were the bellwether of America's economy. Every community relied on railroads for goods and services, mail and shipments, travel and connections to the rest of the country. Railroads were the portals. Steam locomotives provided the mobility. Now, however, in an age of jet airplane travel, railroads in America are an afterthought, and steam locomotives a curiosity at theme parks or special travel venues. Still, steam locomotives capture our imagination, representing as they do a different time, a different technology than that we favor currently. From the development of steam power on railroads mid-nineteenth century to the end of its innovation and production one hundred years later, this is a complex story within a larger context of technological, cultural, and aesthetic changes. Withuhn weaves these strands deftly into a well-researched historical account, an insightful memoir, an authoritative reference work accessible to a broad range of audiences. American Steam Locomotives is recommended. Good for browsing as well as research. Interesting for the engineer as well as the artist.