Saturday, February 16, 2013

Remembering the blow lamp we used at the North Western Gas Board

The question “How did you make the transition from a manual worker to a university professor took me aback and caused the following reflection which I think are instructive especially in terms of what they say about so-called "learning disabilities. " So here they are:

When I left school, nobody "graduated" in those days, at the age of fifteen I began work with the North Western Gas Board in Stockport, England. The first eight months of our apprentice training was spent in a newly built training school which was run by Arthur Barton a First World War veteran and fascinating character.

We spent the mornings receiving lessons about the gas industry in a normal type of classroom. There we studied the history of gas, its manufacture, physics and chemistry. In the afternoons we went to the workshop where we were taught how to perform the normal tasks of gas fitting and plumbing.

This meant learning to work with brass, copper, iron, and lead pipes. Bending pipes involved both mathematical calculations and skill. Joining them together, adding bends and tee junctions involved soldering. Iron pipes were joined by threading and cutting them which was hard work. Joining brass, copper and lead pipes, especially lead, took a lot of skill which was acquired over several months of regular practice.

Since the workshop was kept scrupulously clean we had to be very careful how we worked and make sure that everything was cleaned each evening. Finger marks could not be left on anything and our joints had to be works of art without any solider running down the side of pipes.

Our main textbook was R. N. Le Fevre’s A Manual of Gas Fitting (London, 1958) which cost the enormous sum of £3 at a time when a very expensive book cost around 5 shillings and a the average paperback cost about 1 shilling and sixpence (at the time there were around $5 US to the £ which consisted of 20 shillings). This was our bible. To that we added The Plumbers Handbook (London, n.d.) which was given away as a free paperback by the Lead Development Association.

Although we sometimes used blow torches for big jobs involving major pipes of over 3" diameter most of our work was with ½" up to 1" pipes. And to begin with we worked almost exclusively with lead which is easy to manipulate and was used for both gas and water piping.

The beauty of the mouth blow lamp was that it produced intense heat that was highly focused. As a result, with practice, once could produce high quality work. In fact, it appears that this type of blow lamp is also known as the "jeweler’s blow lamp" which in the past was widely used to produce very expensive jewelry.

The significance of all of this for my academic career will be explained in my next blog.

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