"Where Have All the Blacksmiths and Boilermakers Gone?" by Alpha Unit

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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7 thoughts on “"Where Have All the Blacksmiths and Boilermakers Gone?" by Alpha Unit”

  1. the boilermakers are still out there i my self am a pipefitter and work with them alot i have met lots them and they are a skilled craft a strong union have many friends that are boilermakers

  2. U.S.navy ships still use boilers…bigguns…there’s a rate in the navy called Boiler technician..BT’s…we would always send a newbie down to the “bilge” to get a BT punch from a boiler technician. He thought it was some kind of tool…laffin…Boiler techs are what’re called “snipes”..don’t mess with snipes, they’re ill-tempered, like cooks. They have to work long hours in the heat and don’t get to see the outside. The first sailors to get into a fight on liberty are the BT’s.
    Once, when we were coming back from Scandinavia via the north sea, it , was storming (as it usually is in the north sea) and the waves were 50-60 ft high, breaking against the bridge. The ship was dogged down (all the hatches shut tight) and there was no hot food. You can’t safely cook in a tin can under those conditions. The ship would plunge into a trough and be submerged for some seconds till it bobbed back out again. The thing is, when we were alone out there going thru that shit, we had only one boiler online. Normally a destroyer has 2 going. And you can’t just “start up” a boiler…it takes hours. So,if that boiler failed, as they’re want to do at times, we’d have no forward propulsion and get turned in the trough.
    That meant capsizing. And noone could save us in that Maelstrom.
    It was a nervous time.

  3. Where have all the blacksmiths gone?
    wo sind sie geblieben?
    Sag mir wo die blacksmiths sind,
    was ist geshehen?
    Sag mir wo die blacksmiths sind,
    uber Graben weht der Wind.
    Wann wirt man je verstehen?
    Wann wirt man je verstehen?

  4. Interesting post. It seems like craftsmen are becoming ever more rare in the modern world. You can see it when you look at old pre-war architecture. When I walk around historical downtown in my city, I’m often stunned at the level of sculptural detail and adornment that went into architecture. Many of these buildings have very beautiful and ornate façades. Anything build in the modern era will lack the charm and subtleties of older buildings. Everything now is streamlined and minimal. Just glass and concrete buildings. A large part of that I think is that there are just so few craftsmen around anymore who could actually perform such work. However down in Mexico, you still have a lot of people heavily skilled in craft and trade and it reflects in the architecture.

  5. am a woman aged 25,currently studying boiler making,in our class we only four ladies to a buncn of guys,i love the challenge and i love boiler making,it is a great career path to choose.am a proud boiler maker to be!

  6. We are still here, but only just. If you live in a society that does not know of the people that built it you will have a problem recruiting people to continue the trades. I am now a retired Consulting Engineer.

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