Long Ago, In a Control Room Not So Far Away ...

June 10, 2004

Not long ago, while making a routine service call to an old and established manufacturing plant, I stumbled upon one of the most remarkable discoveries of my career.

There was one small manufacturing plant located not far from the office that I visited often. It had been in business for over 60 years and had managed to survive every major economic upset and technology revolution of the time. Although the structure that housed the company displayed a porcelain plate in front that read, "Built in 1925," all the process manufacturing machinery and equipment, control networks, intelligent field devices and software were the newest. Heavy forged steam-driven manufacturing machines had long since given way to several progressive phases of equipment replacement and refurbishment so that today, the entire plant's operation had become very agile and flexible, controlled and monitoring using the latest in enterprise software. The control room was an impressive display of colorful graphic interface arrays, lighted pushbuttons and large alarm panels.

I got to wander around a bit. On one occasion, I took a wrong turn, got lost, and found myself in one of the more isolated parts of the building. It was poorly lit; unlike the main section of the plant there was no climate control or janitorial service. There was a great amount of rubble and dirt strewn across the floor. Cobwebs and grit clung to everything. The whole area seemed derelict, neglected, and abandoned.

 "Unlike other instruments that I have seen and worked on, this one had very distinct characteristics with sharp lines and unique craftsmanship."

I had come upon what was once the company power plant. The plant had been designed with its own independent source of power. It was composed of two B&W water tube boilers driving a GE turbine generator set and the necessary auxiliaries. Long ago, deterioration, age, operating costs, and other factors pushed the plant into permanent lay-up and retirement. The whole atmosphere reminded me of the "cold iron watches" we had aboard ship when all the engineering systems were down.

At the side of one of the boilers, about 10 feet away, was a steel beam on which was bolted a thick heavy black instrument case with what appeared to be sensing lines coming out of the top. It had an unusual quality about it that had caught my eye. Unlike other instruments that I have seen and worked on, this one had a very distinct characteristic about it, sharp lines and unique craftsmanship. It appeared to be a recording instrument of some kind. Time and neglect had coated the round glass window with a heavy layer of dirt and dust. Beneath the window was a finely crafted bronze plate riveted to the case with deeply etched letters that read, "Bailey Meter Company."

I took out my penknife out and scraped off the thick layer of dirt from the glass. I look inside and saw a circular chart. It had two concentric ink tracks permanently soaked in that were about 70% of scale. One was red and one was blue. The legend inside the case identified the red ink track as steam flow and the blue as air flow. The two variables had moved together in unison making a smooth circular trace around three quarters of the chart until about eight in the evening that day. It was then that something sent them swiftly plunging to the center hub where they have remained to this day. The date on the chart read, "June 29, 1954." The fires were extinguished for the last time and the boiler was put out of existence. The chart served as a permanent historical record.

When I returned to the office, I used the Internet and my notes to find do some research and found that the instrument was a Bailey Boiler Meter. It had been invented by Ervin Bailey around at the turn of the century during the time when rapid industrialization created a huge demand for power in the U.S. Boiler operators used the two variables, steam and air flow, as an indicator of optimum combustion. As long as they were moving together, combustion was at its best. The Bailey Boiler Meter, although crude by our present digital standards, revolutionized boiler operation, paved the way for automatic boiler operation, and laid the foundation for today's process control systems. A milestone in process control engineering.

I spoke with the plant manager and through some negotiation and craft, managed to remove and take possession of the instrument.

It is now in the Smithsonian with a few others just like it, a National Historical Engineering Landmark and testimony to turn of the century leading-edge technology; much like the leading-edge control technology of today. What will it look like to someone a half a century from now when they unearth from a pile of rubble and dirt, today's latest design of wireless I/O?

Robert C. Rosenbaum, PE, Consultant, Industrial Automation and Control

Mechanical Engineering, American Canyon, Calif.,

[email protected]

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