Here is some self-evident truth: the steam engine was critical to the Industrial Revolution. So were the men called boilermakers. Steam engines ran factory machines, trains, and ships; none of them would have run without a boiler. The men who constructed and maintained those boilers were a kind of engine themselves for commerce and manufacturing. There are still boilermakers, of course, doing essential work all over the world, although they sometimes go by other names these days. Historically these tradesmen (they are still overwhelmingly male) were known as “boilersmiths.” Their trade is actually an extension of blacksmithing, and came about largely due to the advent of iron as a primary construction material. Boilermakers would be in the shipyards making the iron boilers for steamships, and employers found it easier and cheaper to use boilermakers to build the ships, too. Because of their skills as general metalworkers – rolling, shearing, welding, and riveting – boilermakers built trains and metal bridges in addition to steel ships. And just about everything operated by steam was in their purview. Boilermakers are still out there working in industrial construction, shipbuilding, railroads, and mining. When companies need metal structures like process towers and smokestacks fabricated and installed, it’s boilermakers that get it done. They also do rigging, signaling, and hoisting of materials and equipment. Fossil and nuclear power plants are practically run by boilermakers. Boilers supply steam to drive the turbines that generate electricity in these power plants. Because these places often operate at very high steam pressure, boilermaking, welding, and tube-fitting are an ongoing project for them. And what of blacksmithing, the mother of boilermaking? There are still working blacksmiths doing what blacksmiths of long ago did – heating pieces of wrought iron or steel until they’re soft enough to be shaped. Back then, a blacksmith out in the country was mostly sought after for horseshoes, plowshares, and farming tools. In towns they would make such things as parts for carriage wheels and canal barges. Once the Industrial Revolution got underway, you’d find blacksmiths making railway axles and other parts for trains. They also worked in shipbuilding and in the engineering and textile industries, building and repairing machines. Nowadays blacksmiths sometimes work with computer programs and specialized cutters that use lasers or water jets to cut the metal they’ll be forging. But you can still find blacksmiths working in some of the same industries they have traditionally, such as the railroad industry, where they build and repair the metal components and parts on equipment. One thing blacksmiths will sometimes tell you is that architects, in particular, keep them in business. Blacksmiths get commissioned to create gates, ornate fences and furniture, and balustrades for staircases and balconies. Because there is so much overlap in the different metalworking trades, these workers have organized together throughout the years. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers says that anyone who works in any of these trades may call himself or herself a Boilermaker. As to why whiskey with a beer chaser is called a boilermaker, they say, nobody knows. At least nobody they can find.
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