Today, shoe polish and bearing lubrication.. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Which edition of a book has more to tell us,
the first or last? First editions, for some odd reason, command
the highest prices. They sometimes do reveal a more primal historic
outlook. But late editions can be road maps of how our thinking has
evolved. They retain elements of their origin, while alterations reveal
how our thinking has shifted along the way.
Example: a 1916 second English edition of Richard Brunner's, The
Manufacture of Lubricants, Shoe Polishes, and Leather Dressings.
The German book had already been through six editions. This intermixing
of lubrication with shoe polish provides a window into the 19th-century
-- before petroleum products came to dominate our world of chemicals.
Here is an era when the same animal and vegetable materials were used to
finish leather and to lubricate the new locomotives, steamships, and
factory drive shafts.
Brunner's book was now far out of date, yet another enlarged English
edition would still appear. His work circulated for a half century or
so, while the world shifted beneath it. By 1916, Henry Ford had built
his assembly line and he was driving petroleum production in ways Brunner
could not've imagined. His lubricants are still witches' brews of
vegetable and animal oils.
Take shoe polish: Its most common coloring agent was bone that'd been
roasted to drive off volatile matter, leaving carbon -- much as we once
made coke from coal. The black carbon-rich bone, called bone black,
then went through elaborate crushing and cleaning processes. Then it was
mixed into glycerin to make shoe polish. (The grey/white ashes of a
loved one, by the way, have been roasted until the carbon is also gone.)
There's a lot more to it, of course, but that's typical of these technologies.
The preparation of lubricating oils is even more Byzantine. In many cases,
seeds are crushed to yield oils. The oils emerge somewhat slimy, owing to
fragments of seed husks. So they're put through fancy "clarifying" processes.
The resulting oils are thin, so Brunner has a chapter on what he calls
cohesion oils whose viscosity has been increased by additives. Otherwise
much of the oil would slide off the rotating shaft and be wasted. But it's
very easy to harm an oil with the wrong additives.
Only toward the end, does Brunner mention "mineral oils." These are, and I quote,
"obtained in the refining of crude petroleum ... these oils are unsuitable for
lighting purposes owing to their dim, smoky flame [but may] be regarded as universal
lubricants, since they can be prepared in all degrees of consistency."
And there lies the secret to 20th-century lubrication in a little six-page throwaway
chapter. For a moment Brunner holds the future in his hand, then turns back to
his old world of bootblack and rapeseed oils. And one more of yesterday's experts
is left behind by the unstoppable juggernaut of technological change.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. Brunner, The Manufacture of Lubricants, Shoe Polishes and Leather Dressings.
tr. by Chas. Salter from the 6th German ed., 2nd English ed. (London: Scott Greenwood &
Son, 1916). The same publishers issued a 3rd English edition in 1923. The 3rd German
edition came out in 1885, before which WorldCat does not list editions. Both images are
from this source.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.