Friday, January 31, 2014

Auld Lang Steam (Better Late than Never)

A month ago today, perhaps for one of the last times, the old steam whistles signaled the New Year on the Pratt Institute campus in Brooklyn. Each year since 1965, Pratt's Chief Engineer, Conrad Milster, has orchestrated the event with his personal collection of historic steam whistles, powered by the nearby steam plant. Despite a temperature in the mid-20s, a sizable crowd turned out to take part--many taking the opportunity to blow the whistles themselves after the clock struck midnight. Here's the scene we encountered when we arrived a couple of minutes into 2014:

One set of whistles was operated by a system of ropes, each paired with a whistle to open a steam valve. Meanwhile, a Casio keyboard controlled another ensemble of whistles. Naturally, revelers took turns stepping to the plate for industrial renditions of "Chopsticks" and "The Knuckle Song."

A few of the Institute's engineers were on hand to operate, supervise and answer questions. You can tell which one is the engineer, as most of the rest of us were too dumb to wear hearing protection. If I remember correctly, this gentleman has been working at Pratt--and in the power plant--since 1963.

In addition to the musical celebration outside, Pratt opened its steam plant for tours. Though no longer in service to the campus-at-large, the plant is still operational. In fact, it is "the oldest continuously-operating, privately-owned, steam-powered electrical generating plant in the country." In 1977, the plant was designated as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.  For the occasion, Mr. Milster prepared a fascinating history of the power plant and its equipment. Of course, it also fed the whistles for the night, and--importantly--provided a warm and merry respite for the revelers. Laypeople like us were allowed to roam (pack) the upper mezzanine, illuminated by festive holiday lighting. Meanwhile, engineering students gallivanted about the lower level, checking up (geeking out) on the the steam engines at the heart of the evening's operation.

The switchboard inside the steam plant
Finally, a closer look at one of the engines at work:

If you are in or near Brooklyn next New Year's Eve, I wholeheartedly recommend that you make the effort--and brave the weather--to experience this wildly unique celebration firsthand. It might be the last chance any of us will have.