Black Powder Beginnings

Trip Start Feb 15, 2010
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Trip End Feb 14, 2011


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Where I stayed
Wal-Mart (Wilmington, DE)

Flag of United States  , Delaware
Saturday, April 3, 2010

Today I made my way to the Hagley Museum, home to the original duPont family's black powder mills.  Before DUPONT became a large chemical company, specializing in creating ground-breaking synthetic materials like nylon, lycra, kevlar, and teflon; they were the United States' leading manufacturer of black powder.  The Hagley Museum was spread over the entire original duPont estate and held a three story museum, the original home and outbuildings, and many of the old factory and mill buildings.

The museum floors held a number of displays explaining the history of the region, and how the area along the Brandywine River became one of the most important industrial areas in the nation during its time.  At that time, water mills were the chief source of mechanical power, so the Brandywine River was an obvious choice due to its rapidly descending waters.  Mills along the river produced flour, paper, black powder, and cotton.  The museum showed how the different industries along the river expanded and developed over time.  One man, Oliver Evans, drastically altered the way that flour was produced by designing machines that were able to utilize the river's power to perform almost all of the hard labor in the flour mills. 

The second floor of the museum housed a number of patent models from the Hagley Museum's collection.  Many of the models never made the leap into production, and some of the ideas and designs were downright ridiculous, but it showed how many people were actively trying to make their fortune through design and invention during that time period by finding ways to improve the quality of life.

The top floor of the museum was a series of exhibits focusing on the many products and discoveries made by the duPont company throughout its history.  I already mentioned a number of the products and I'm sure you can think of others on your own, but one interesting thing I learned is that duPont is almost entirely responsible for every material used in the design of NASA's space suits.  The suits themselves are comprised from 13 layers of different materials.

The next stop on the grounds was the duPont's house.  The first five generations of the family live in the house, and fifty years after being built it had to be heavily renovated due to damage sustained from shockwaves and minor quakes caused by the frequent explosions at the mills.  The house had a large garden in the back, and the guide explained that they were attempting to re-create the gardens as they would have been when the first duPonts lived there.  The entire family was very in touch with nature and loved to interact with it through their gardens.  One of the family members took much care to guide and sculpt different plants as they grew, forming entire rows of trees into unique patterns and shapes.  We were taken by the guide through the multiple rooms of the large house and through the office building that was constructed only a matter of yards from the back of the house by one of the sons who didn't want his work office inside of his home.

The next stop was to an engine room where a large steam engine was installed to power the mills during times of drought or in the event of the river freezing over during winter.  The large steam engine was only capable of producing between 8-10 horsepower, but it's operation was almost completely silent. 

There were other stops available, but my last stop was to the machine shop and powder mills.  In the machine shop, an elderly gentleman showed me around the building which still housed all of its original machinery from the mid-1800's.  Originally all of the machines were powered by the river, but currently they are operated on a small electric motor until the water turbine can be reconnected.  The room was incredibly interesting because of the ingenuity that went into it.  All of the machines in the building were operated from one central drive line with belts running to a pulley and drive belt for each machine.  A simple lever would slide the belt over to the chosen machine's drive belt and start it up.  On most of the machines a change of speed would require shutting it down and physically moving the belt to a different size of pulley, but one of the smaller drill presses had another ingenious device that is now being utilized in the production of hybrid/electric cars!  The design consists of two cone-shaped pulleys with a friction belt in between them.  If the belt is moved to the larger side driving cone, the speed is increased.  The opposite is true if the belt is moved to the narrower end of the drive cone.  The concept may be hard for some to visualize, but hopefully the photograph below will help you see what I'm trying to explain.  Many of the machines also incorporated elaborate gear systems that allowed the operator to program in a design and let the machine do all of the work.  Entire gears were cut without human intervention using this elaborately automated system.  Interestingly, they were not all that different from the robot machines of today.  Another interesting thing the guide and I were discussing was the attention that designers once committed to the aesthetics of their machines.  Many of the various drill presses, lathes, and grinders had very unique designs incorporating elaborate (and structurally unnecessary) curves, specially shaped legs, gears and wheels with curved spokes, and even design elements of roman and greek columns on the supporting structure.  The fact that all of the machines are still fully functional is also a testament to the quality of their products.  This room too would have been surprisingly quiet for a machining shop.  Only the clunking whirring sounds of the machines and the slow methodical scraping of the metal lathes.  Quite a contrast to the din of shrieking electric motors spinning at thousands of rpm today.

For the powder mill tour, I joined with another elderly gentleman who led me down to the mill run (a canal built behind the mills that keeps water directed away from the river at an even elevation, allowing it to power the water wheels or turbines as it rushes back down to the descending river).  He turned a large iron wheel that opened up a valve to allow the water from the mill run to start powering up the water turbine.  Each turbine was located between two mill buildings, powering them both simultaneously.  Once the turbine started spinning we could hear the machinery begin to turn inside the nearby building.  The sounds were coming from two extremely large metal wheels that were placed inside of a pit.  The purpose was to combine the ingredients for the black powder, start up the grinding wheels, and get the heck away while the grinder pulverized the different ingredients into a homogeneous powder mixture.  The danger of explosion during this process was high, so the workers stayed well away from the mills.  The grinding mill buildings were also built with three thick stone walls and an open face towards the river with a light tin roof on top to protect from rain.  That way, if an explosion did occur, the blast would be directed outwards to the river, hopefully avoiding any collateral damage or chain reactions.  After we watched the heavy wheels grinding away at the ancient dirt that was left in the bottom of the pit, the guide took a small measure of black powder and placed it into a small device with a ratcheting gear that was used to measure the strength of the powder's blast.  Samples were routinely tested using this device to make sure the product was consistent and satisfactory.  The device was placed inside of a small plexiglass case and the guide lit the fuse.  The resulting crack was about the same volume as a pistol shot.  He said he was impressed because I didn't jump like most of the other visitors, but it is quite plain in the video that I took that at least my arms jerked enough to make the camera jump.

Since the museum and grounds were about to close, I spent the rest of the time walking back to the main gate while taking some photos along the way.  Then I returned to the same Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant from the night before to grab some dinner and use the internet connection before driving to Deptford, NJ for the night.
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