Saturday, September 8, 2018 1 Permalink 0


The virtue of pushiness

When D suggested we had time to visit a “small nearby museum on the history of steam power” I nearly spit out my beer on the boatdeck. Yes, yes, yes, and please yes.

But I sensed immediately some disinterest among certain shipmates. There was a bit of inexplicable lollygagging on board, wasting time I felt we could have been sailing full-speed toward the promise of geekdom.

Some of our party were apparently not as enthusiastic about steam engines as I felt they should have been.

An oft-foiled museum junkie, I kept my cards close, intending to persuade with guile and cunning.

Steam-schmeam, well… It might be nice. [It MIGHT BE NICE??!] I’m sure there are other things to do on this rainy day. [Like what, peruse old Cosmopolitan magazines? Play a few games of canasta??!]

But then, because it’s Holland after all, and speaking one’s mind is not only allowed but expected, D rounded quickly back and announced, Dutch style, that he did not care a whit if anyone else went, that he was going to go. His own decision was made regardless of the group.

Who’s with me and who’s staying?

We were not out on the open water, bound to each other’s course. We were docked, and each person could walk her/his own way on dry land. That’s why the Dutch had drained it and made it dry, to get off the boats and enjoy a bit of independent bipedal volition for a change.

And at that moment the floodgates of camaraderie opened and I was by his side in full rain regalia, at which point all the other ducks lined up behind him, too, in various stages of reluctance, and we were off.

In all fairness, D didn’t know where he was going. He led, but over dike and dale. We met some sheep along the way. We experienced first-hand the local rain (struck me much like wet, cold rain anywhere, but I’m no connoisseur of weather along the North Sea, which I gather has 50 words for rain and maybe a few more for gray).

We crossed a lot of country roads. We incidentally toured a castle… but finally we arrived at the factory-museum, which was sitting just below a mighty dike.

That dike was, I was told, to only my very slight trembling horror, holding back the whole IJsselmeer.

I like to think that there was never a chance that this might not have happened, because… wow. This was a gem of an experience, and every one of us enjoyed it.

But what if D’s selfish hutzpah had not been there? What if I had played it my way and lost? What do we sacrifice needlessly every day in order to please other people who really could go either way? How often do we cow deferentially toward the group when what the group may need most is our leadership, even when unpopular, even when (in D’s case, for example) uncertain?

I made a mental note that on vacations like this one, sometimes it is best just to forge ahead without consensus, and sometimes even selfishly. Enthusiasm, if not infectious, is highly enforceable. Good things come to those who dare to push onward through sheep and rain to get where they want to go.

I would do well to learn a bit from the ol’ Dutch, those who dared to dream of moving oceans, on speaking one’s mind directly without compromise, because each mind is needed, especially the most enthusiastic ones.

Sense and power

The 110 year old steam-powered pumping station in which the National Dutch Steam Museum is housed is still used as a backup system for maintaining the polder lowlands behind it, if and when more modern pumping methods fall short. When it has been needed, over a century later it still works.

This one fact suggests two things:

1. Automation and industrialization was not just a pastime for the Dutch, but a life-and-death failsafe. They put a value on these machines succeeding that is hard to match elsewhere until perhaps our investment in the success of airplanes not falling out of the air when we use them.

This is serious stuff, and compromise-consensus was not on their minds. This had to work, and best practices and effective designs were rewarded.

2. Meeting with raging success in the initial hubris of actually removing the sea and creating new arable land, to automate the former windmills and increase their draining capacity exponentially, meant that the Dutch could smugly relax a bit and start thinking up other less stressful applications for their now-refined engines, things like drill presses and church bells and tractors and, of course, better trains and cars.

So one success against impossible odds opened a floodgate in the other direction, to become a tech giant, to apply what miracle you already have, broadly to a thousand other purposes. (Doesn’t this sound familiar, in the age of the Internet?)

All of this story is told at the museum. It is an engineer’s paradise, full of functioning gadgets, both scale models and enormous machines.

My M works in an industry for which mechanical parts are specified, sourced, and stress-tested to a fare-thee-well, and he kept gleefully remarking how gratuitously overbuilt and elegant the Victorian-era objects were.

Not much stress testing needed, when you start with iron bolts the size of tennis balls, apparently. Robustness was the goal, not necessarily efficiency nor low cost.

These massive machines seem eternal. The only thing that could destroy them is their own function pushed too far or too fast, or a lack of maintenance longterm. As it is, if operated correctly and maintained regularly, they look to last forever.

And if you have such berth in overbuilding by design, why not also make them beautiful? They certainly did.

These engines are dirty and elegant at the same time. Oil is kept in bucket-funnels that drip down generously onto pistons as big around as a person’s leg, lathering them in lubricant for smooth movement.

The museum rooms were dense with sensory load: the smell of steam and burning oil, the noise of rhythmic compression and bursting exhausts, the smooth rocking of precise anti-organic forms interlocking, the tingling electrical output charging the humid air, the excited Dutch voices of the guides passing easily back and forth to English, explaining the marvel of the machines they were demonstrating, the clack of their wooden clogs on the steam-wet concrete floor – and through big factory windows, a view of the low polder just briefly before the open water that sits on a high shelf beyond, held back by dikes and machines, the Dutch flag waving proudly overhead.

What was only gradually evident in touring the pumping station was the sheer power of these antique machines. They quite literally could hold the whole ocean at bay.


These engines are from an industrial age, not our information age. They are purely physical, and in that sense ultimately, objectively understandable, and yet their complexities are also shrouded in mystery to anyone who does not work with them daily.

No instruction book or website exists to explain how to maintain them. They have become, evolved, in the patina of time, and in replacement parts, in riggings and retrofitting.

Instead of formulaic obedience, they require a familiarity with general principles of mechanical engineering (which in turn could be applied to almost any of them, or even later pre-electronics apparati), a hands-on knowledge of what ultimately makes them work, and then tracing backwards through any problems in the system to get there successfully from the first shovel of coal or firewood.

The comparison of such machines to ourselves as ultimately carnal, despite contrasting appearances, is inevitable. One leaves the museum understanding perfectly well why mechanics and engineers of the past referred to their machines using personal pronouns, as “Her” rather than “it.” They were in a relationship.


The steam engine museum might seem like a counterpoint to life on the sailboat.

On a boat our lives function as an interlocking community, each person doing her or his part, the sailboat and all our fates depending on cooperation among our various individual wills. We are the parts of the machine, and in a sense the boat merely contains us and enables us to act together, not unlike a village or a boardroom table.

Also, on a boat there is room for choice, and many choices can lead to the same destination.

A steam engine, by contrast, is a design based on brilliant vision and honed exactitude. It requires trained experts to operate, and it does not compromise: This part goes there. This oil bucket must remain filled to this level. The furnace must be stoked to between these two temperatures. She likes a bit of rest at the 10-hour mark, and do not exceed xx number of hours of operation without a full dismantling for cleaning.

Strict impersonal rules are imposed a priori. It is, first and foremost, a machine. Those who may run it are but support staff obeying and enforcing its rules over generations.

But in another sense, a pumping station is not so different than a boat. Both are illustrative of Dutch cooperative ingenuity, and maybe one was in some indirect way born of the other: Our common fate depends on the common project, the collective, be it vessel or engine, not the individual. The machines and norms and failsafes we hold in common, our very course in the water as on land, must be maintained above the whims and diktats of any one person.

Yes, there is a Captain; yes, there is an Engineer. But their power stems not so much from a rulebook as from a general, personal, and seasoned command of method and materials in the interest of the common good. If that good is not effectively accomplished in the end by the methods espoused and the teams surrounding them, be it in machining or rigging, then there is not just mutiny or obsolescence or breakdown, but all is lost and the sea will cover us.