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‘The Henry Ford’ (museum)

May 1, 2009

While in Michigan this past weekend visiting family, my sister and mom and I made a trip to The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI.  This is (mostly) a technological historical museum which will entertain anybody who is fascinated by technology, history, or any combination of the two.  It does contain an exhibit on social movements through American history (titled “With Liberty and Justice for All”); but the majority of the museum floorspace is devoted to early and post-industrial era technological artifacts.  Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to wander the museum, and I’m pretty sorry we didn’t have more time to read all of the plaques and learn all the facts available to us, which I could have included here.  But I still was able to get some great photos and learn some impressive statistics on the Iron Beasts in this Mechanical Manger.

It would be hard for me to say that I’ve ever been in a museum which appeals to me more…  Perhaps the Berlin or Munich technological museums come close, but this place beats them when it comes to illustrating the progress of technology through history.  I think that is what appeals to me the most about this museum; it illustrates how painstakingly long it takes, how much wealth is expended, and what kind of enormous effort it takes for progress to be achieved–and yet we do it.  Humans go forward, and make progress.

My favorite part of the whole museum, which really illustrates technological-progress-through-time, is the exhibit called “Made in America.”  It is an enormous collection of life-sized originals or replicas of energy production machines.  Starting all the way back at crude, three-story tall steam engines, you see the evolution of these machines, up to the enormous gas and steam engines of the late industrial era.  A really neat feature of this exhibit is how they compared the power outputs of each of the machines.  On a little lamp by each of the machines, a plaque states how many 40-watt light bulbs can be powered by the machine sitting before you.  It is impressive to see an enormous three-story Watt steam engine…  which could only power 118 forty-watt light bulbs.  A modern gas turbine can produce 400 megawatts, occupies approximately the same volume, and can power 10 Million forty-watt light bulbs–this is approximately 85,000 times as powerful as a Watt steam engine, for the same machine volume.  Yeesh!   

Here are some pictures from the “Made in America” exhibit…  The flywheels on these things were just enormous; and many of the engines were a mechanism-philes delight: gears, cranks, four-bar linkages (Yarrr!  Hardcore engineering 🙂 !!!!).  This first picture is of the first practical steam engine which was able to be widely produced and used in factories, made by Watt in the 1780’s:


Here is an eerie-looking shot of the derrick and boiler of another steam engine:


But the piece de resistance of this exhibit was the “Highland Park Engine.”  This was just one of the nine gas and steam engines used to power the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park assembly line during the heyday of their assembly line domination (the engine was built in 1916).  This thing was enormous.  The cylinder bores are three feet in diameter, and the stroke of the piston is six feet.  he flywheel shown in the background of this image was probably two feet thick, and maybe…  30 feet in diameter?


Does anybody make things this big anymore?  Do we even need to make stuff this big anymore?  I estimate, based on my experience working at GE’s gas turbine facility in Greenville South Carolina, that this machine took up four times the size of a 400 megawatt gas turbine…  and the plaque by this Highland Park Engine said it only generated 4 megawatts.  One hundred times the power in 1/4th of the volume?  Wow.  The Highland Park Engine is so big, that it was put in place on the museum’s plot of land, and then the museum was built around it. 

Another wicked-epic-huge machine was in their train exhibit…  This was the C&O Allegheny Locomotive (built in 1941):


I am the very small orange-shirted person leaning out of the window of the cab and waving…  Waaaay back there.   Here’s a better perspective shot from The Henry Ford’s website, which gives a better sense of the length scale:


The Allegheny weighs 600 tons, and is one of the largest steam-powered locomotives ever built.  It was built to haul coal through the Allegheny mountains of West Virginia and could reach speeds of 60 mph.  A museum attendant said that it was largely still in working order and could be operational in just a few days (anyone for a sweet hijacking movie plotline?).  He also said it could generate enough power to run a city.  I wanted numbers behind his “power-a-city” claim, but he wasn’t an engineer-by-training.  He did tell me that its two boilers could generate more power than two modern diesel locomotives and he said that the foundation underneath the train was 6 foot thick concrete; the train would crush any modern railroad track being used today (movie plot derailed.  har.  har.).  RAW MECHANICAL UNDERCARRIAGE:


The museum’s train exhibit also featured a large train engine plow, used to clear snowed-out railroad tracks:


The train and power engine exhibits were the most impressive in terms of sheer size, but numerous other exhibits had wonderful display pieces.  There was a great exhibit on pioneers of flight.  With all of this technological progress, a rising standard of living was enabled for Americans living through it, and this was illustrated in another exhibit on the way technology has changed in the life of the average consumer…  From hand-washing clothes to washing machines, and from coal-burning stoves to modern electric ovens, technological improvements have led to vast improvements in the lives of Americans.  (Though I will admit that the ornamentation of the cast-iron stoves at The Henry Ford was very attractive:)


Close-up of one of the stoves:


In the 1920’s, R. Buckminster Fuller, an inventor who is noted for popularizing, if not inventing, the “geodesic dome,” proposed and built the Dymaxion House and redesigned it in 1945. It’s shape was an ellipsoidal revolution, suspended up on a concrete pole above the ground.  With this house, he aimed to mass produce the pieces of the home in factories and ship it disassembled for, ultimately, a very cheap home.  Consumers and investors ultimately determined that this concept was not a very valuable mechanism, as only a few prototypes of the home were ever produced.  In any case, the last remaining prototype of the Dymaxion House is at The Henry Ford:


For its time, it employed very novel materials which had mainly only been used in aviation (Aluminum!  GASP!  Plastic!  GUFFAW!).  The whole house is supported by steel tensile cables which converge at the peak of the house; here is a view of that peak, inside the house:


All of these previous advances in technology would not have been possible without one thing: the technological revolution in agriculture.  Machines in farming allowed significant portions of the populace to be freed from the drudgery of farming, and these people were able to devote their efforts to activities which are more productive than hacking and planting the earth.  As such, there was also a great collection of farm equipment at The Henry Ford, again illustrating how far we’ve come in terms of the technology in that area.  In the forground of the picture below, an old wooden animal-driven seed planting device is visible.  The hollow cylindrical metal furrows dig into the earth and seeds–agitated by the mechanical drive off the front wheel–fall out of the boxes and down through the metal furrows into the earth.  In the background, the very large, very modern, very John Deere interpretation of the same technology is visible:


Here is a close-up of the underside of the agitating mechanism from the old plowing/seed planting device, driven by a gear off of the front wheel:


And here’s an early steam-driven “tractor”:


Rollin’ on 54’s.  And look at the big honkin’ flywheel off the side of this tractor:


Speaking of flywheel, I was stoked to find a gizmo in The Henry Ford gift shop which I’ve been looking to get my hands on for some time now–a (Kikkerland) flywheel-driven toy car:


The gearing allows the heavy flywheel’s high-rpm inertia to be transmitted into low-speed / high-torque at the wheels.  This gives it the ability to easily climb up hills:

Oh, physics!  The Henry Ford also had a bunch of cool injection-molding plastic souveneir creation stations scattered around the museum.  For two dollars, you could watch the mold halves clamp together, inject the plastic, and release your (still warm) souveneir.  Because I am an ass, I accidentally deleted the short video I made of the machine in action.  But here is the result:


Summary: The Henry Ford is the best technological historical museum I have ever been to.  I have not been to any other place or read any book which so succinctly summarizes the glory of man-made technology in just a few short hours.  You may also agree with me that the hours which you end up devoting to this museum will be too few in number–there is too much to see, and far too many details to study, than a few hours can allow.  A return trip on my part is necessary.

Oh, and the museum also has an Oscar Mayer Weiner car.  Next to the Weinermobile is a gigantic hot dog bun and all the toppings you could ever want to cover yourself with.  Everything is big at The Henry Ford.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2009 1:48 pm

    Wow, I had no idea this museum was so comprehensive and inspiring. This definitely goes on my must-see list.

  2. September 30, 2009 9:56 am

    I was wondering if there was anyway we could use your photo of the Flywheel Toy Car in a lesson we are doing for K12 Inc. in our high school physics course. We can give you credit for the photo.


    Jennifer Davis Heffner
    Media Editor

  3. September 16, 2018 1:17 am

    Anything (and almost everything) there is to know about the massive ‘Gas-Steam’ engine you saw in the museum is at
    My grandfather was the draftsman to the designer of the engine, Edward Gray, who was Ford’s Chief Engineer back then. Imagine, there were nine of those, one 1500 hp one (gas only, built in Oil City, PA where my grandfather first worked for Gray for three years at Riverside Engine), then a 5000 hp of the same design but both sides gas then the next nine were the ‘Gas-Steam’ engines. Yes, they were basically obsolete by 1925 but they helped power the plant where the most important auto in the history of cars was built, the Model T.

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