Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 30

“How’s the development coming on that ‘hydro-pneumatic recoil system’ you’ve been working on with Captain Rahzwail and Commander Malkaihy?” he asked.

“Pretty well,” Houseman replied. “We had a little trouble with the gaskets and seals initially, and the machining tolerances are awfully tight. We have to do more of it with hand tools, hand-held gauges, and individually fitted pieces than I’d really like — the templates in the different manufactories aren’t as consistent as I could wish, even now — but I suppose that’s inevitable, given how recently we got around to truly standardizing measurements. Amazing how much difference there was between my ‘inch’ and, say, Rhaiyan’s! That didn’t matter as long as we were only worried about what we were making, and not about how well parts from our shops would fit anyone else’s needs. And those machine tools people like Zosh and Nahrmahn have been putting together still aren’t quite up to the tolerances I’d prefer. They’re getting there, and quickly, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Why?”

“But your fittings and steam lines and air lines are holding up? Meeting the pressure levels you were describing to me last month?”

“Yes.” Howsmyn eyed the cleric narrowly. “It’s still more of a brute force approach than I’d really like in some cases, but they’re working just fine. Again, why? You’re headed somewhere with this, Paityr.”

“Well, I know you and Merlin deliberately steered Master Huntyr and Master Tidewater towards reciprocating engines because you want them for ships, and I don’t really disagree with your logic — or with what I understand of it, any way. But I’ve been thinking about how they’d actually work. The turbines, I mean. About the way steam pressure would drive the vanes to provide power.”

“And?” Howsmyn prompted when Wylsynn paused.

“Well, what if instead of steam, you used air? And what if instead of turning the turbine to produce power, you used air power to turn something like a turbine to do work?” Wylsynn grimaced, clearly trying to wrap the words around a thought still in the process of forming. “What I mean is that the machines you’d run with electric motors if you could . . . Couldn’t you power them with compressed air, instead? If you built air lines to the workstations you’re talking about, couldn’t you use air compressed by steam engines — like the way you’re powering the forced draft on your blast furnaces — to drive the ‘machine tools’ your ‘assembly-line’ would require?”

Howsmyn stared at him, his expression completely blank. He stayed that way for several seconds, then shook himself and sucked in a huge breath of air.

“Yes,” he said, almost prayerfully. “Yes, I could. And without all that damned shafting and all those damned drive belts that keep crushing hands and arms no matter how careful we are! My God, Paityr.” He shook his head. “I’ve been so focused on other aspects that this never even occurred to me! And it would be a perfect place to develop turbines after all, too. Running compressors, high RPMs would actually be good!

His dazed expression was fading rapidly into a huge grin, and he punched Wylsynn on the shoulder, hard enough to stagger the priest.

“You can’t run a turbine efficiently at low RPMs, and you can’t run a propeller efficiently at high RPMs. That’s why Domynyk and I went for reciprocating engines. They run a lot more efficiently at those lower RPMs, and trying to cut the reduction gears we’d need to make turbines work for the Navy would’ve put an impossible bottleneck into the process. Either that or we’d have to run them at such poor levels of efficiency fuel consumption would skyrocket. We’d be lucky to get half as many miles out of a ton of coal. But for a central compressor to power a manufactory full of air-powered machine tools, the higher the RPMs the better! I wasn’t worried about that when we were talking about powering the blast furnaces or pumping water out of the mines. I was too busy thinking about the need to get the Navy’s engines up and running, so of course we concentrated on reciprocating machinery first! After all, turbines were mostly the way to power those electrical generating stations we can’t build anyway — it never occurred to me to use them to power compressors! That’s brilliant!”

“I’m glad you approve,” Wylsynn said, rotating his punched shoulder with a cautious air.

“Damned right I do!” Howsmyn shook his head, eyes filled with a distant fire as he considered opportunities, priorities, and difficulties. “It’ll take — what? another five or six months? — to get Zosh and Nahrmahn headed in the right direction to put it all together, but by this time next year — maybe sooner than that — I’m going to have a genuine assembly-line running out there, and I’ll be able to put it in from the very beginning at Maikelberg and Lake Lymahn!” His eyes refocused on the priest. “Our efficiency will go up enormously, Paityr, and it’ll be thanks to you.”

“No, it’ll be thanks to you and Master Huntyr and Master Tidewater,” Wylsynn disagreed. “Oh, I’ll gracefully accept credit for pointing you in the right direction, but what Merlin calls the nuts and bolts of it, those are going to have to come from you and your greasy, oily, wonderfully creative henchmen.”

“I don’t think they’ll disappoint you,” Howsmyn told him with another grin. “Did I tell you what Brahd suggested to me last Tuesday?”

“No, I don’t believe you did,” Wylsynn said a bit cautiously, wondering what he was going to have to bend the Proscriptions out of shape to permit this time.

Brahd Stylmyn was Howsmyn’s senior engineering expert, the man who’d designed and overseen the construction of the canals for the barges freighting the thousands upon thousands of tons of coal and iron ore Howsmyn’s foundries required down the Delthak River. His brain was just as sharp as Zosh Huntyr’s, but it was also possessed of a bulldog tenacity that had a tendency to batter its way straight through obstacles instead of finding ways around them. The term “brute force approach” fitted Stylmyn altogether too well, sometimes, although there were also times, to be fair, when he was capable of subtlety. It just didn’t come naturally to him.

“Well, you know he was the one who laid out the railways here in the works,” Howsmyn said, and Wylsynn nodded. Like many of Howsmyn’s innovations, the dragon-drawn railcars he used to transport coal, coke, iron ore, and half a hundred other heavy loads were more of a vast refinement of something which had been around for centuries but never used on the sort of scale he’d envisioned.

“He did a good job,” Howsmyn continued now, “and last five-day he asked me what I thought about laying a railway all the way from here up to the mines. I told him I thought it was an interesting idea, but to be honest — given how much we were already moving with the canals open, especially now that we’re able to get steam into the barges, we were unlikely to be able to move enough additional tonnage, even with dragon traction, to justify the diversion of that much iron and steel from our other projects. That was when he asked me why it wouldn’t be possible to take one of our new steam engines, squeeze it down, and use it to pull an entire caravan of railcars.”

“He came up with that all on his own?”

“You just called my henchmen ‘wonderfully creative,’ Paityr,” Howsmyn replied with a broad, proud smile. “And you were right. I thought I might have to prod one of them with the suggestion, but Brahd beat me to it. In fact, he was practically dancing from foot to foot like a little boy who needed to go when he asked me if we couldn’t please divert some of our priorities to let him build his steam-powered railway.”

“Oh, my.” Wylsynn shook his head. Then he took another long sip of whiskey, lowered the glass, and his gray eyes gleamed at the industrialist. “Clyntahn’s going to burst a blood vessel when he hears about this one, you know. I guarantee it, this time, and I really wish we could have the opportunity to watch him froth when he does.”

“We won’t be able to watch,” Howsmyn agreed, “but I’m willing to bet we’ll be able to hear him when he finds out.” The ironmaster raised his glass in salute to the intendant. “Maybe not directly, but I can already hear the anathematization crackling down the line towards us. Makes a nice sizzling sound, doesn’t it?”