THE locomotive engine which reaches nearest perfection, is one which performs the greatest amount of work at the least cost for fuel, lubricants, wear and tear of machinery, and of the track traversed: the nearest approach to perfection in an engineer, is the man who, can work the engine so as to develop its best capabilities at the least cost. Poets are said to be born, not made. The same may be said of engineers. One man may have charge of an engine for only a few months, and yet exhibit thorough knowledge of his business, displaying sagacity resembling instinct concerning the treatment necessary to secure the best performance from his engine: another man, who appears equally intelligent in matters not pertaining to the locomotive, never develops a thorough understanding of the machine.

A man who possesses the natural gifts necessary for the making of a good engineer, will advance more rapidly in acquiring mastery of the business than does one whom Nature intended for a ditcher. But there is no royal road to the knowledge requisite for making a first-class engineer. The capability of handling an engine can be acquired by a few months’ practice. Opening the throttle, and moving the reverse lever, require but scanty skill; there is no great accomplishment in being able to pack a gland, or tighten up a loose nut; but the magazine of practical knowledge, which enables an engineer to meet every emergency with calmness and promptitude, is obtained only by years of experience on the footboard, and by assiduous observation while there.

Ever since the incipiency of the railroad system, a close interest has been manifested by the general public in the character and capabilities of locomotive engineers. This is natural, for no other class of men hold the safe-keeping of so much life and property in their hands.

Two leading pioneers of railway progress in Europe took diametrically opposite views of the intellectual qualities best calculated to make a good engineer. George Stephenson preferred intelligent men, well educated and read up in mechanical and physical science; Brunel recommended illiterate men for taking charge of engines, on the novel hypothesis, that, having nothing else in their heads, there would be abundant room for the acquirement of knowledge respecting their work. In every test of skill, the intelligent men proved victors.

No demand for illiterate or ignorant engineers has ever arisen in America. Many men who have spent an important portion of their lives on the footboard, have risen to grace the highest ranks of the mechanical and social world. The pioneer engines, which demonstrated the successful working of locomotive power, were run by some of the most accomplished mechanical engineers in the country. As an engine adapted to the work it has to perform, the American locomotive is recognized to have always kept ahead of its compeers in other parts of the world. No inconsiderable part of this superiority is due to the fact, that nearly all the master mechanics who control the designing of our locomotives have had experience in running them, and thereby understand exactly the qualities most needed for the work to be done.


The safe and punctual operation of our railroads has always depended to a great extent upon the discriminating care of the engineer. The present tendency of railroad operating is to increase his responsibility. Every advance in brake improvement increases the duties of the enginemen, and upon them will soon devolve the entire management and control of trains while in motion.

Writing on the fitness of various railroad employees for their duties, that eminent authority, Ex-Railroad Commissioner Charles F. Adams, jun., says, "In discussing and comparing the appliances used in the practical operating of railroads in different countries, there is one element, however, which can never be left out of the account. The intelligence, quickness of perception, and capacity for taking care of themselves, —that combination of qualities, which, taken together, constitute individuality, and adaptability to circumstances, —vary greatly among the railroad employees of different countries. The American locomotive engineer, as he is called, is especially gifted in this way. He can be relied on to take care of himself and his train under circumstances which in other countries would be thought to insure disaster."

While American locomotive engineers can confidently invite comparison between their own mechanical and intellectual attainments and those of their compeers in any nation under the sun, there still remains ample room for improvement. If they are not advancing, they are retrograding. The engineer who looks back to companions of a generation ago, and says that we know as much as they did, but no more, implies the assertion that his class is going backward. On very few roads, and in but rare instances, can this grave charge be made, that the engineers are falling behind in the intellectual race. On the contrary, there are signs all around us of substantial work in the cause of intellectual and moral advancement.

No class of railroad-men affects the expenses of operating so directly as engineers do. The daily wages paid to an engineer is a trifling sum compared to the amount he can save or waste by good or bad management of his engine. Fuel wasted, lubricants thrown away, supplies destroyed, and machinery abused, leading to extravagant running repairs, make up a long bill by the end of each mouth, where enginemen are incompetent. Every man with any spark of manliness in his breast will strive to become master of his work; and, stirred by this ambition he will avoid wasting the material of his employer just as zealously as if the stores were his own property; and only such men deserve a position on the footboard.

The day has passed away when an engineer was regarded as perfectly competent so long as he could take his train over the road on time. Nowadays a man must get the train along on schedule time to be tolerated at all, and he is not considered a first-class engineer unless he possesses the knowledge which enables him to take the greatest amount of work out of the engine with the least possible expense. To accomplish such results, a thorough acquaintance with all details of the engine is essential, so that the entire machine may be operated as a harmonious unit, without jar or pound: the various methods of economizing, heat must be intimately understood, and the laws which govern combustion should be well known so far as they apply to the management of the fire.

To obtain this knowledge, which gives power, and directly increases a man’s intrinsic value, young engineers and aspiring firemen must devote a portion of their leisure time to the form of self-improvement relating to the locomotive. Socrates, a sagacious old Greek philosopher, believed that the easiest way to obtain knowledge was by persistently asking questions. Young engineers can turn this system to good account. Never feel ashamed to ask for information where it is needed, and do not imagine that a man has reached the limit of mechanical knowledge when he knows how to open and shut the throttle-valve. The more a man progresses in studying out the philosophy of the locomotive and its economical operation, the more he gets convinced of his own limited knowledge. A young engineer who seeks for knowledge by questioning his elders must not feel discouraged at a rebuff. Men who refuse to answer civilly questions asked by juniors searching for information, are generally in the dark themselves, and attempt by rudeness to conceal their own ignorance.

The system in vogue in most of our States, especially in the West, of taking on men for firemen who have received no previous mechanical training, leaves a wide field open for engineering instruction. Such men can not spend too much time watching the operations going on in repair-shops; every detail of round-house work should be closely observed; the various parts of the great machine they are learning to manage should be studied in detail. No operation of repairs is too trifling to receive strict attention. Where the machinists are examining piston-packing, facing valves, reducing rod-brasses, or lining down wedges, the ambitious novice will by close watching of the work, obtain knowledge of the most useful kind. Looking on will not teach him how to do the work, but interesting himself in the procedure is a long step in the direction of learning. Repairing of pumps and injectors is interesting work, full of instructive points which may prove invaluable on the road. The rough work performed by the men who change truck-wheels, put new brasses in oil-boxes, and replace broken springs, is worthy of close attention; for it is just such work that enginemen are most likely to be called upon to perform on the road in cases of accident. To obtain a thorough insight into the working of the locomotive, no detail of its construction is too trifling for attention. The unison of the aggregate machine depends upon the harmonious adjustment of the various parts; and, unless a man understands the connection of the details, he is never likely to become skillful in detecting derangements.

I knew a case where the neglect to learn how minor work about the engine was done, proved fatal to the prospects of a young engineer. A new engine-truck box had been adopted shortly before he went running; and, although he had often seen the cellar taken down by the round-house men when they were packing the trucks, he never paid close attention to how it was done. As the new plan was a radical change from the old practice, taking down the new cellar was a little puzzling at first to a man who did not know how to do it. One day this young engineer took out an engine with the new kind of truck, and a journal got running hot. He crept under the truck among snow and slush, to take the cellar down for packing; but he struggled half an hour over it, and could not get the thing down. Then the conductor came along, to see what was the matter; and, being posted on such work, he perceived that the young engineer did not know how to take the cellar out of the box. The conductor helped the engineer to do a job he should have needed no assistance with. The story was presently carried to headquarters with additions, and was the means of returning the young engineer to the left-hand side.

There is a silly prejudice in some quarters against engineers applying to books for information respecting their engines. Engineers are numerous who boast noisily that all their knowledge is derived from actual experience, and they despise theorists who study books, drawings, or models in acquiring particulars concerning the construction or operation of the locomotive parts. Such men have nothing to boast of. They never learn much, because ignorant egotism keeps them blind. They keep the ranks of the mere stopper and starter well filled.

The books on mechanical practice which these ultra practical men despise, contain in condensed form the experience and discoveries that have been gleaned from the hardest workers and thinkers of past ages. The product of long years of toilful experiment, where intense thought has furrowed expansive brows, and weary watching has whitened raven locks, is often recorded on a few pages. A mechanical fact which an experimenter has spent years in discovering and elucidating, can be learned and tested by a student in as many hours. The man who despises book-knowledge relating to any calling or profession, rejects the wisdom begotten of former recorded labor.

The study of good books relating to the locomotive will teach the young engineer many things about his engine that can be verified by practice. If anything in a book induces an engineer to think for himself, and sets him to observing and investigating, it is certain to do him good.

A highly instructive and interesting means of self-instruction that can be reached by most ambitious engineers and firemen is the study of models and cut cross-sections of locomotive mechanism. Many division brotherhood rooms used by engineers and firemen have models and cross-sections of valve gear, lubricators, brake mechanism, etc. These appliances offer invaluable aid to men anxious to learn about the working of the parts they represent, and constant use ought to be made of them.

Valve gears are a favorite study with young engineers, and information about their arrangement and action can be studied to the greatest advantage by the aid of a model. The chapters on valve motion, farther on in this book, are made as plain as simple words and clear wood-cuts can make them; but the subjects treated will be much easier understood if they are studied with a model at hand for reference. Two or three studious engineers or firemen can give great help to each other by forming a class to study a model together by the aid of the chapters on valve gear. When that part is mastered, they will be likely to study the Westinghouse air-brake and other parts in the same way. The union of two or three together for the purpose of mutual study yields a form of strength that is certain to have a sustaining influence throughout the life of those participating.

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