Billie chose to focus her small project on 'The Steam Man' also known as 'The Davey Differential Valve Gear.' Located in The Main Engine Room, it is the most sophisticated mechanical control machine ever put on a steam pumping engine and the Musuem of Technology is home to the world’s sole remaining working example on one of two Davey Hathorn non-rotative pumping engines.
The valve gear admits steam from the main boiler into the big low-pressure cylinder of the Davey Hathorn steam engines, which were installed in the pumping station in 1894. It controls the speed of the engine’s piston by moving upwards in one direction, followed by a pause and then downwards in the opposite direction, followed by another pause. This repetitive pause at the end of each stroke ensures that the engine piston does not travel too far, or run-away in an instant loss of load incident.
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Billie was fascinated by a story recounted to her by one of our volunteers where, a century ago, a human error lead to the near catastrophic collapse of the steam engine house and the surrounding architecture. An employee of the time thought that if you took the pause out of the end of each stroke you could get more performance out of the steam engines. Without the pause, the piston travelled too far and repetitively hit and exploded the back of the engine. With great force the pumping engine launched forward, however as it was secured to the building the result was a movement which shattered its surroundings and resulted in five cracks dispersing in an instant up the walls. Below is her latitudinal representation of the cracks
There are now five cracks visible from the exterior of the steam engine house. Hidden under a number of green and blue Victorian tiles, as these have began to deteriorate the cracks have become visible. Billie was inspired by the Japanese concept of Kintsugi, which is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy it treats breakage
and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. She traced the cracks and made exploded images of them. Once enlarged and played with these images began to reveal a contemporary form. Billie proposed an activity whereby visitors to the museum could listen to a recording of the original anecdote about the origin of the cracks, and then record their reflections or their own memories and stories onto a sonic device which they would then be able to drop into the glass encased interior of her contemporary steel bound cracks. As the visitors gradually filled each of the five cracks, the steel would rust eventually exposing the glass interiors and enabling access to the reflections and memories encased within. In this way the museum visitors would be 'healing' the wounds of the museum space.
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