My Dad ran a small mining and construction business and before I started going to school it was not unusual for me to go to work with him. The huge equipment was fascinating and I would often sit on a grease bucket next to him while he ran the bulldozer or stand behind him while he operated one of our draglines. Invariably, one of the pieces of equipment would break down and he would need the services of a machine shop. In the small town of Oakland City, Indiana it was Duncan's.
Phineas Duncan's place sat next to the railroad in a large wooden building with a concrete floor blackened by years of oil and grease from lubricating the drills, saws, and precision gear he used in the machining process. As fascinated I was by all the equipment and what it could do, what consistently held my attention were all the belts that powered everything in the building. Long before equipment had individual electric motors, shops like Duncan's used belts of various widths and lengths looped over driveshafts connected to a single power source to run the gears. Using a series of clutches and handles, Phineas could turn on the the machines he needed.
For a five year old, when the belts were whirring and the machines were grinding or drilling, this was as close to Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory as I was going to get. The only thing missing was electricity arcing across the ceiling. It was spellbinding!
A recent visit to the machine shop at the Georgia State Railroad Museum in Savannah took me back to Duncan's for a little while. The elegant simplicity of the equipment belied the exacting nature of its function and was a gentle reminder that precision work was being accomplished well before robots and computers in the workplace.