Old-Time Motors Provide Reminders of Reality

The Evolution of Process Controls from Pneumatics to Relays to PLCs to Microprocessors Is Crucial to the Modern World, but the Tools Also Have Made Life Easy to the Point That We Forget and Don't Appreciate Their Gifts

By Jim Montague

I visited my parents in upstate New York a few weeks ago, and during that trip I was able hang out with an interesting club my dad, Richard Montague, belongs to. The Hudson Valley Old-Time Power Association (HVOTPA) is an informal group of farmers, mechanics, skilled tradesmen and artisans, who collect, restore and exhibit antique engines, tractors, farm implements, printing equipment and rare tools. The 38-year-old organization is located in Claverack, N.Y., and its mission is "to preserve past for the future."

I helped out with the printing presses and Linotype machine my dad runs at the club's print shop during HVOTPA's annual Old-Time Days event on Oct. 5-6. Several hundred visitors took in demonstrations of almost all of the club's equipment from a 2-hp, 600-rpm, 1928 Witte gas motor agitating a wood-tub washing machine up to an immense 100-hp Ingersoll-Rand diesel motor and compressor, which reportedly powered tools during construction of New York City's Holland Tunnel in 1920-27 and provided its workers with fresh air.

Anyway, right next to the huge diesel compressor was a smaller, older, 45-52-hp, 600-rpm, 25-kWA DC, 1915-16 GE gas-powered motor and generator. It used to be one of several emergency generators that opened and closed locks and dam gates and ran pumps at the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County, N.Y. The club acquired it just over 12 years ago, and it's now operated and demonstrated by Bill Burger, HVOTPA's vice president and a mechanic for the New York State Dept. of Transportation.

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This old GE generator is a potent reminder of the necessity from which the process control field grew. "We need to watch its carburetion system, which combines a carburetor and a choke and is managed by a simple control module on modern generators, pretty closely," says Burger. "One reason it doesn't run as well as we want is because we had to make our own timing coupler between its American Bosch magneto and the engine, but we couldn't get the timing just right, so the generator still struggles a bit."

Berger adds he started his career at a Dodge Motor dealership in 1972 and moved to the DOT in 1985, so he's followed many process control advances over the decades. "Every year, there's more electronics and automation," says Berger. "Our old generator is a dinosaur, but it brings me back to reality because we grew up with them. Most of the kids don't understand how this equipment works or even know what a magneto is. For example, they don't realize that when the governor slows on the GE and Ingersoll-Rand engines, the vacuum in the pistons is what sucks the fuel in to keep it running."

That's really the whole point. The evolution of process controls from pneumatics to relays to PLCs to microprocessors is crucial to the modern world, but the tools also have made life easy to the point that we forget and don't appreciate their gifts. Even worse, many of us can't tap into the creativity that sparked past inventions, so we may not be able to innovate when new challenges arise in the future. As a result, preserving the past isn't just for the future. Maintaining those roots gives us the ability and imagination to reach that future.

[For more on HVOTPA, read Part 2 in the Livewire column in the November issue of Control Design at]