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Engineering students revamp turn-of-the century steam engine

Reconditioning a turn-of-the-century steam engine this summer gave a group of New Mexico State University engineering students a fascinating look back in time, said Taylor Smith, a mechanical engineering technology major and one of the students who began the project in June.

New Mexico State University engineering students and a staff member who rebuilt a 1912 stationary steam engine pose with part of the engine. Back row, left to right, are Dustin Murrow, Joe McIntier, Taylor Smith, James Eaton, Aaron Thomas, Student Project Center Manager Kim Parkey, and Matt Cattaneo. Front row, left to right, are Wes Eaton and Jared Robinson. Not shown are David J. Embry and Ryan Herbon. (NMSU photo by Meghann Dallin)

The reconditioned engine, a 30-horsepower Murray Standard Corliss stationary steam engine that once produced power and heat on the New Mexico State campus, has been placed on display on the university's Frenger Mall, across from Engineering Complex III.

"We're all engineering students. We're all interested in machines. It was interesting to look back in history this way," said Smith, a sophomore from Capitan.

Other students involved in the project were Jared Robinson, a sophomore criminal justice major, and Aaron Thomas, a freshman in agricultural economics, both of Las Cruces; Dustin Morrow of Deming, a junior in mechanical engineering; Joe McIntier of Alamogordo, a senior in mechanical engineering; Matt Cattaneo, a senior in civil engineering technology, James Eaton, a sophomore in civil engineering technology, and Wes Eaton, a senior in mechanical engineering technology, all of Carlsbad; David J. Embry of Farmington, a graduate student in industrial engineering; and Ryan Herbon, a senior in mechanical engineering technology from Trabuco Canyon, Calif.

The engine was bought in 1912 and installed in the college's old engineering building in 1914. It is believed to have provided power for the mechanical shop and possibly to heat other buildings, wrote Embry, who compiled a history of the engine for the project.

Louis Kleine, former head of the university's engineering technology department, recalls using the engine as the subject of experiments as late as the 1950s, Embry added.

When the old engineering building was razed in 1960, the engine was scrapped. Broken into several pieces, it was moved from place to place on campus over the next 41 years, said Anthony Hyde, associate professor of engineering technology and head of New Mexico State's manufacturing technology and engineering center (M-TEC).

In May, when College of Engineering Dean Jay Jordan asked that the engine be reconditioned and placed on display, the work required repairing decades of neglect and exposure to the elements, Hyde said.

The work was done by M-TEC and a number of university departments, he added. Most of the work was done in the Engineering Department's student projects center, but the physics department's glass shop cut and ground glass cylinders, the Physical Science Lab's metal plating department nickel-plated some worn parts, and the Office of Facilities and Services' masonry shop sandblasted parts that had become encrusted with rust, old paint and grease.

Because none of the students, nor any of their professors, had ever seen a steam engine of this type in action, in June Hyde and six of the group visited the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif., which has two working Corliss steam engines. While at the museum, they took photographs of parts that were missing from New Mexico State's engine.

Back in Las Cruces, Herbon and Wes Eaton modeled the missing parts on a computer, using the pictures taken in California, pictures from books and photographs from university archives, then made them in the student projects center. Eaton also designed a gear array that allows a small electric motor to turn the engine's 3,000-pound flywheel to simulate its original movement, without steam, while on display. Cattaneo designed the display base and the concrete pad underneath that supports the engine.

The students said they were struck by the engine's simple, efficient design and by the craftsmanship that went into building it. Tolerances between some parts of the engine are one one-thousandth of an inch, said McIntier.

"We've grown up in an age of computer-numerically-controlled machines that can hold high tolerances on their own. To think that guys from that age, who milled parts by hand using belt-driven machines, could mill to tolerances that fine is very impressive," he said.

"A lot of us here have built car engines and it's interesting to compare that to a mechanism from 100 years ago," said Herbon. "It doesn't have a quarter of the parts a car engine does. The simplicity of it, the small number of parts used to get the motion they wanted, is neat."

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/steamengin.jpg.
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