Lima locomotives: a loving look at steam-age technology

Superpower, The Making of a Steam Locomotive, written and illustrated by David Weitzman. Boston: David R. Godine. 108 pages. $19.95. Whatever goes around comes around, per the old business maxim, and this Christmas trains are coming around again. The Lionel Company has a full offering to puff and clatter around the tree. If you buy your son (or daughter, that little dickens!) an electric train, you should add this oversize, intricately illustrated book, to show how the real ones were made.

``Superpower'' is the story of the construction of a full-size steam locomotive at the Lima (Ohio) Locomotive Works back in the 1920s, back when people were proud of the height of the smokestacks that grimed up their town, back when soot meant progress.

The story is told through the eyes of young Ben, 18 years old, apprenticed in the building of a prototype of the largest engine of its day. The details are lovingly brought out, the drafting and the mathematics, the smelting of steel, the casting and machining, and the interface of men with a steadily emerging technology.

The engine is a monster, but in the eyes of its creators, a beautiful monster, capable of transforming inert black coal into a thrilling rush across the American horizon.

Our fascination with steam trains has probably never been equaled by our fascination with any other technology, maybe because a steam engine had no internal secrets. Everything it did was obvious, noisy, clanky, and impressive. It was a technology that appealed to boys because it was so overwhelming. Current technology - computers and all that junk - is clever, but it is silent and surreptitious. Steam engines may be over and done, but their dominance was undisputed. Today boys need something to make them think about the way things work.

The book is in the David Macaulay tradition (``Pyramid,'' ``Cathedral''), so the details are the biggest part of the story, showing the relationship between patient planning and careful organizing and the final product. The writing is fresh and the story has humorous touches; at the end young Ben gets a raise - to 30 cents an hour. It is beautifully typeset by the Stinehour Press in Vermont, but alas, for a book about America's technological preeminence, the book was printed in Spain.

Jeff Danziger is on the Monitor's staff.

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