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The machines that made the Jet Age

By Tim Heffernan- Share this article

This is a companion piece to Iron Giant: One of America’s great machines comes back to life, a feature by Tim published in The Atlantic

Germany, June 1945. The Nazi regime has been toppled; the war in Europe is over. But the Allied victory is largely the result of sheer overwhelming force, not technological superiority — and the victors know it. Most glaringly, while the Allies still rely on propeller-driven aircraft, the Luftwaffe has put three jets successfully into service.


A Messerschmitt Me 262, the first military jet to enter service. Brought to you by Krupp’s magnesium forging division. Photo: USAF


A Boeing B-29, the first bomber with pressurized crew compartments. Brought to you by Rosie the Riveter. Source: USAF

The reasons for German air superiority were several, of course, but a key one was their mastery of light-metal forging. While the Allies were still bolting together their planes out of steel plate, a slow, labor-intensive process ripe for error and unsuited to design optimization, the Germans were stamping and squeezing out complex structural elements from magnesium and aluminum alloys.

Not surprisingly, after Germany surrendered, both the U.S. and the USSR sought to take control of its forging facilities.

The Soviets got the good stuff.

In so doing they got a head start on the Cold War race for supersonic air superiority. Unwittingly, they also set in motion a larger, and largely forgotten, industrial revolution that shaped the second half of the 20th century and will shape the 21st. This is the story of the birth of the Jet Age — but it’s anchored firmly to the ground.


Photo: Library of Congress

The magnificent machine pictured above is a closed-die forging press, one of the biggest in the world. (For reference, check out the men standing at its foot, down there on the left.) It and nine other huge forges were built in 1950s by the U.S. government, in a long-forgotten endeavor called the Heavy Press Program. I wrote about the press and the program in the March Atlantic, and Maggie kindly invited me to write a bit more here, because — well, first of all, because just look at that thing. It stands nine stories tall (four of them are hidden under the floor), weighs 16 million pounds, exerts 50,000 tons of compressive force, and, like Vulcan’s own waffle iron, squeezes ingots of solid metal between its jaws until they flow like batter.

Here’s another picture for scale:


Each casting was loaded individually onto a specially built train car and carried from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. Photo: USAF Air Force Material Command

Those are just four of the 14 steel castings that make up the Fifty, as the press is known, and they aren’t even the biggest ones. Those would be the twin 250-ton upper stationary crossheads, shown in Figures 5 and 6 of this document— also a good source for more technical details about the press.

And here’s a before-and-after of the Fifty’s handiwork:


Press-forging minimizes waste metal compared to machining, and by realigning the metal’s internal crystalline structure along natural lines of stress, results in much stronger parts than casting would produce. Photos: Library of Congress

That’s a piece of titanium about 15 feet wide and a foot thick, in its raw state and after being forged in a single stroke between the Fifty’s hardened steel dies under 100 million pounds of pressure.

Though they were built nearly 60 years ago, the ten machines of the Heavy Press Program — four forging presses, the waffle irons, and six extrusion presses, basically giant caulking guns except the “caulk” is solid metal — are still among the most powerful ever made. Even more impressively, at least eight of the ten are still in use.


Extruded aluminum parts (not parts from Heavy Press Program machines). Photo courtesy Dalcio Metal

So, what do they do? Well, in strict terms, they make heavy components for aircraft, spacecraft, and power-generation facilities. That chunk of titanium, for example, became one of the bulkheads that anchor the engines, fuselage, and wings of an F-15. More familiarly, every time you fly on a Boeing or Airbus, you’re relying on parts made by the Heavy Press Program machines to keep you aloft—things like the wing spars, which connect the wings to the plane’s chassis.

But in broader terms, what the machines do is make the Jet Age possible. On a plane, a pound of weight saved is a pound of thrust gained—or a pound of lift, or a pound of cargo. A lighter plane also puts less stress on its chassis when it goes through maneuvers. Supersonic military jets are optimized for speed and strength. Subsonic passenger and cargo jets are optimized for fuel efficiency and load capacity. Without the ultra-strong, ultra-light components that only forging can produce, they’d all be pushing much smaller envelopes.

Dawn of the Military-Industrial Complex

Back to 1945 for moment. The Soviet acquisition of Germany’s biggest forges made it all but inevitable that the U.S. would build its own heavy presses—but it’s important to note that it did not make the Heavy Press Program inevitable. Private industry could have built its own machines. The government could have built them, too, and indeed early plans called for the military to construct a “pilot plant” and dole out chunks of time to the air industry to experiment on government-run machines. The idea that it was in the public’s interest to pay for the machines but cede their control to industry was a controversial one, and many leaders in Congress strongly resisted it as a dangerous blurring of private and civic concerns.

On the other hand, with millions of WWII servicemen and women being demobilized, mass unemployment was a threat, and shoring up the aerospace industry was an attractive way to stave it off and harness wartime technology to the peacetime economy. Cold War policy also encouraged massive defense spending, but (as ever) a secondary war was being waged by the military branches for funding, and heavy forging wasn’t of much use to the Army or Navy. It was a complex situation, and one that could have been resolved in several ways. But by 1949 it had been decided that the government would build a number of heavy forging machines and the factories to support them, and that these facilities would be leased to the great metals companies of the day on very generous terms. The Heavy Press Program had begun.

Nifty Fifty

The Fifty was installed at Alcoa’s Cleveland Works facility and began operations on May 5, 1955. A complementary 35,000-ton press was installed shortly after. I have their initial production list, and it reads like catalog of American military air power of the age: wing roots for the Republic F-105, wing spars for the Convair B-58, landing gear trunions for the Boeing B-52, bulkheads for the Lockheed C-130—in all, hundreds of items. From the start, the forges were busy machines.

The Heavy Press Program also supplied Wyman-Gordon of Grafton, Massachusetts, with a 50,000- and 35,000-ton pair of forging presses. Here’s their 50K, nicknamed Major (yep, the 35K is Minor), and again, note the man standing at its foot for scale:


The two 50,000-ton presses were of very different design — those interested can compare them here and here — but their dies were made to be interchangeable, so that production would not be disrupted if one of the machines broke down or was attacked during war. Photo: Library of Congress

To these four were added the six huge extrusion presses: a 12,000-tonner for Curtiss-Wright in Buffalo; twin 8,000-tonners for Kaiser in Halethorpe, Maryland; a 14,000-tonner for Alcoa in Davenport, Iowa; and an 8,000- and a 12,000-tonner for Harvey Aluminum in Torrance, California, just south of L.A. With stroke lengths of up to 92 feet, the extruders were used to produce long, hollow structures like aluminum missile bodies and wing struts in a single, seamless piece, saving time, weight, and material. Here’s the Harvey 12K, which went into service in August 1957:


Though it was nearly 300 feet long and weighed 8 million pounds, the maximum variance along the Harvey 12K’s chassis was just 0.004 inches. Source: USAF Materiel Command

This iron giant—which reminds me somehow of a steam train—is the one Heavy Press Program machine that definitely no longer exists: it was cut up for scrap in the 1990s. And I haven’t been able to confirm the fate of the 8,000-tonner at Harvey—though it may have been shipped to Korea or China.

As for the other eight machines, they’re still working. Curtiss-Wright’s extruder ultimately was bought by Precision Castparts and moved to Houston, and Kaiser’s pair was taken over by Alcoa, but their jobs haven’t changed. They make the things that make us fly, and they’ll be doing so for decades yet.

A Stamp on History

I see three main legacies of the Heavy Press Program.

First, of course, is the aeronautics industry as it now exists. We are accustomed to talking about the ways abstractions like “technology” or “Washington” have affected life the world over. But the machines of the Heavy Press Program are a concrete—well, an iron-and-steel—example of how industry and politics can collide with enormous yet unpredictable effect. The civilian air industry was an afterthought when the program was conceived, yet it is arguably the program’s signal achievement. Again, every Boeing and Airbus jet you’ve ever flown, every one that has carried mail or freight across the oceans, on was built around vital structural components made by these huge machines. Their impact on global society and commerce has been incalculably great. But every American military jet that has fired a gun or dropped a bomb in war was also built around Heavy Press parts—and thus the greatness of the program’s impact is morally blurred.


You can’t have this...


...without this.

Second is the military-industrial complex. I don’t believe it’s possible to place its origin in any single spot. But I am also not aware of any defense program since the HPP that was meaningfully opposed by Congress on the grounds that it threatened the functioning of American democracy. That a given project was “wasteful” or “bloated,” sure—but that’s just bookkeeping. The Heavy Press Program was in many ways the test case for the proper division between private and public interest, and it was decided in favor of what amounts to a mutual aid society between American industry, the American military, and Congress. The consequences are plain, and not often pretty.

Lastly is a legacy of absence. Today, America lacks the ability to make anything like the Heavy Press Program machines. The Fifty, to pick the one I’m most familiar with, was made by the Mesta Machine Company of West Homestead, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. Mesta built the machines that built Steeltown — the furnaces, the blowers, the rolling mills and the forges. Mech-heads will want to check out this digitized Mesta brochure of 1919, a kind of Whole Earth Catalog for the iron industry. The less avid can just enjoy the picture below, from the same era. Then imagine what Mesta Machine could do by 1950, with three decades worth of further innovation under its belt.


Mesta could mold, cast, forge, machine and field-test huge components under one roof — literally — a full-service shop of the sort that no longer exists in the U.S. Photo: Carnegie Museum of Art.

The company went under in the mid-1980s. It is not unambiguously bad that it and the rest of American ultra-heavy manufacturing are gone. But it’s not unambiguously good, either. Conventional wisdom would say that the industry went to less-developed nations, freeing American resources for higher-tech pursuits. In fact, the only companies today capable of producing Heavy Press-size equipment are in the backwaters known as Germany and Japan, with companies in Russia, Korea, and China rapidly catching up and the UK actively rebuilding its top firm, Sheffield Forgemasters, through cheap government loans. Just last year four Japanese companies joined forces to build a new 50,000-ton press for the aerospace and power industries, and while I was working on this piece China Erzhong, a nationalized conglomerate, announced that it will build an 80,000-ton press — the biggest ever — to support its nascent aerospace industry.

Now is not the time for America to build new forges: eight really is enough. But the original heavy presses, which have lived far longer and spurred far more innovation than was ever imagined, set an example that I think might yet be followed. Big machines are the product of big visions, and they make big visions real. How about a Heavy Fusion Program?

53 Responses to “The machines that made the Jet Age”

  1. I just want to see that massive wheel rolling down a hill somewhere.

  2. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    In the Share tab, the link is to the wrong article.

  3. rockdaddie says:

    Rivetting article – sorry about the pun, it was a fascinating read. Although you make one massive overstatement:

    “the Allied victory is largely the result of sheer overwhelming force, not technological superiority”.

    Historians have a made a good case that the British out-scienced the Germans in WWII. The list is impressive: radar esp the cavity magnetron (air war over England in 1940, US Navy night actions in the Pacific), sonar (it and radar both crucial in the anti-U boat war), programmable computer (Bletchley Park cracks the Enigma codes), the Allied A–Bomb effort began with the Tube Alloy project

    • Jonathan Badger says:

      Yes, things like radar, computers, and the A-bomb were definitely Allied successes. But jets and rockets were German ones — that’s why both the US and USSR snatched up as much German technology (and scientists) that they could — even if that meant protecting some of the scientists from prosecution for war crimes.

      • dculberson says:

         Well, I think there were advances on both sides, and that had Germany won (yikes!) they would have spent a lot of effort snapping up scientists from the Allied powers.  The Allies gathering up the best minds behind the German war machines doesn’t mean that the Germans were definitively ahead enough to be considered a technologically superior force.  It would have been idiocy not to learn from them.

      • It would be interesting to trace the moment that WWII turned into a covert 3-way conflict between the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union over the technological resources of Germany. It’s arguable that the D-Day invasion was mostly about making sure Germany didn’t *only* lose to Russia.

        • Bureaucromancer says:

          Not THAT interesting really. Just about any credible historian would admit that it was realistically a three way conflict long before it began, between the pre war red scares, the “let them destroy themselves” attitudes and comments, etc.

      • Seon Lee says:

        Don’t forget about the bio-weapons programs the US snatched up from Japan. Those scientists were also given amnesty and never prosecuted for their many very atrocious war crimes.

      • Alain Gabriel says:

        Don’t forget the Gloster Meteor! It was flying and able before the end of WWII.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloster_Meteor

    • Ryan_T_H says:

       I think WWII is the great demonstrator of iterative improvement vs. force multipliers. Each German plane was qualitatively better than each allied plane. But radar made each allied plane worth multiples of its individual power. Similar force multiplication from the code breaking effort.

      • Ronald Pottol says:

        This is hugely true, the German stuff was all incremental improvements, the Allied, game changers. Ultra/Magic let us read all their communications, microwave radar let us put good radar on anything (night fighters to proximity fuses (and without those, the war against Japan would have been much harder)), the atomic bomb, etc. Well, and mass production, though being able to make more tanks than your opponent can make anti tank ammunition is kind of rough on your tank crews.
        Our secret weapons beat the shit out of their secret weapons.

      • SixSixSix says:

         Not sure. Germany had real problems with quality control of designs. They never stabilized the design of many of their key equipment especially in aircraft and heavy armor from the beginning to the end of the war. This made deployment and maintenance a problem. They fell behind in all forms of marine warfare. They suffered a critical  inferiority in electronics, especially RADAR, and secure communications. They went nowhere with computing technologies. Most devastatingly they went on the wrong track for atomic devices, the only secret weapons race that really mattered had the war gone on even few months more for them. The jets were impressive but did not give air dominance and the Brits matched some them. The V-1 cruise missile was easily shot down. The V-2 was an enormous consumer of resources with rather poor return on investment. These items had important future implications but rather modest operational importance during hostilities while it still matter to the German side.

    • s s says:

      All true – but as essential as they were to winning the war, those were supporting technologies not weapons of war.  Nazi equipment was more advanced and better built than anything the Allies could put into the field for years after the war. 
        

      • Ronald Pottol says:

        The Germans never even understood how the wing of the P-51 worked (wrong wind tunnel design), and sure, they could hand build a few amazing things, but we could flood the battle field with stuff. 

        Did you know why they didn’t use gas against D Day? Their army was still horse drawn, and a horse will not work with a gas mask on. Sure, nerve gas is more effective than mustard gas, but mustard gas would be enough to immobilize the German army, unlike the truck based Allied army.

      • German equipment was more advanced but much of it was essentially still in prototype. THere were never enough spare parts and all these things broke down constantly. The allies had reliable technology and just made a lot of it and kept it in the field by producing enough spare parts to keep it going.

  4. Great articles. Thank you.

    Something I’m curious  to know, how long does it take one of those monster presses to make a part? One of those titanium thingies, for example.

    • Tim_Heffernan says:

      Not very long — a typical press stroke by the Fifty lasts from 30 to 120 seconds. I’ve tried to anticipate and answer some more basic questions at my (very young) personal site, counterintel.tumblr.com

      Thanks for reading!

    • Hugh Dong says:

      Back when I worked in the aircraft industry, I actually visited that Wyman-Gordon plant.  On thing these photos don’t convey is that the entire machine move up and down.  It’s quite a site to see something the size of a five story building move up and down to crush a yellow hot lump of titanium into a die.  It moves slowly though (not dropping like a hammer) so I would say the time from titanium ingot to titanium thingy was about 15 seconds (although the one in the photo was probably cleaned up with shot blasting).

    • Ryan_T_H says:

       I’d also like to know this. These things are inherently awesome, but ‘cranks out a piece every 15 minutes’ is way more awesome than ‘a couple presses a day’

  5. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I used to work for a company that serviced industrial presses.  They’re astonishing things.  You feel like an ant around them.  Housed in colossal sheds with doors so big that birds fly right through the building.  Lathes 30 feet long.  Pump connecting rods with bearing ends so large you can walk through them without ducking.

  6. destroy_all_humans says:

    enjoyed the article, would be nice to have a national project to build up pride and respect. Before the easy money crew sells off our ability to dream.

  7. paul beard says:

    What I found interesting when I read this last week (it is getting a lot of play, which is interesting in itself: people still *get* making stuff, especially making one of a kind tools to make more stuff) was that the program that birthed these was right out of a command economy, not unlike how China today is the envy of the world in its manufacturing prowess. 

    Granted, the need was imperative, given the Cold War. But imagine if we had the same sense of national purpose to develop the tools to build out a sustainable energy infrastructure or new automotive/transportation technologies or whatever. I’m no enemy of markets but nor am I blind to the need for using the power of the government’s enormous purse to drive demand that markets can then supply. 

    As an example, the venerable Jeep was the result of a design brief circulated to 140+ carmakers. What if the GSA decided that all fleet purchases had to meet certain materials requirements and technological standards, as a way to drive innovation? Does no one else shake their head at seeing a taxpayer-purchased Prius in government livery? 

    Anyway, fascinating article and great discussion. 

    • AlexG55 says:

      Interestingly enough, the PRNDL layout for automatic transmissions is the result of the sort of requirements you advocate- though it’s a safety feature to prevent people accidentally selecting reverse. Rather than banning the sale of cars with different layouts, the government (this was back in the late 50s/early 60s) said that it would only buy cars with PRNDL transmissions.

    • Mark Dow says:

      The designed selected for the Jeep was by American Bantom/Willys, a design developed mostly before WWII, and manufactured by three corporations (Willys, Ford and American Bantom) during the war. It was innovative, but it is hard to argue that the spec requirements and fleet purchase drove the innovation. It certainly drove demand, but the demand for the Jeep after the war was low.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willys#WWII_.26_The_Jeep

      • paul beard says:

        I wasn’t so much arguing that as lamenting the lack of options: we have what, 2.5 carmakers now vs the 140 or so back then, with GM and Ford as US makers and Chrysler owned by FIAT? And consider the possible designs specs of today vs what was possible in 1940. And how long was the jeep the standard vehicle? 40+ years? 

        I read 30+ years ago that carmakers were working on oil-less engines, using finely machined high-temperature ceramics where engines now use lubricating oils. This was partly to make military equipment more robust and easier to maintain (less maintenance, fewer supplies). But it could have been included in consumer products, had it worked as expected. Not sure what happened to that but I expect there are many other ideas that never made it to market but might if there was some incentive. If we had innovative forward-looking design requirements, it might spur investment that could result in more brands and choices. A long shot, I realize, but as I said, I believe in markets but I always bear in mind they work for us, not the other way around. They occasionally need some guidance. 

    • JonathanPutnam says:

      I also find the “command economy” aspect of this story to be particularly illuminating. In Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller documents this same pattern of privatization in the nuclear industry. After spending enormous government funds building up our nuclear know-how, the government essentially gave this technical capacity to private industry for nothing. Similar appropriations of public research for private gain can be found in the pharmaceutical industry and the nascent butanol industry. This is a travesty.

      James Albus, a researcher with the NIST and NASA who passed away last year, wrote a prescient book called People’s Capitalism in 1976 that anticipated the problems increasing automation would have on employment. He proposed that rather than giving Federal Reserve money to the banks (who often use the low interest rates at the discount window to essentially loan the money back at higher rates to the government) the Federal Government should invest in research. The fruits of this research could be licensed to corporations in a non-discriminatory manner and ultimately the proceeds from this licensing would be distributed to all citizens equally in the form of a National Dividend. This dividend would drive consumption of basic needs and eventually lead to the end of poverty.

      Buckminster Fuller’s ideas about a basic solar income, C.H Douglas’ formulation of a Social Credit and Albus’ National Dividend are essentially THE issue that needs to be brought to the forefront of the conversation. If you think about things deeply enough, it is difficult to avoid the fact that some kind of Basic Income Guarantee is inevitable. Well, inevitable for a happy, functional human society anyways. Of course the entrenched powers will use every means at their disposal to provide smokescreens and use divisive techniques to ensure that the general population remains uneducated and at each others’ throats for trivial nonsense. 

      I hope to write more about these ideas soon but for now will just leave these links for those who are interested:
      http://www.american-buddha.com/legalpiggily.htm – Legally Piggily – Chapter 3 from Fuller’s Critical Path
      http://www.peoplescapitalism.org/ – James Albus’ site. the links to the pages appear broken but there is a PDF of the book available here: http://www.peoplescapitalism.org/book/PeoplesCapitalismBook.pdf
      http://www.zchs.org/soccred – Social Credit by CH Douglas (from the 1920s!)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_democracy – An overview

      • GyroMagician says:

        The single greatest failure of the industrial revolution is that we all work so many hours. As machines have slowly taken over heavy labour, nobody seems to be working less. Except for the unemployed, and they have it tough. Why can’t we spread the labour and have more free time? I can live without a flying car, but why is everyone working so hard?

  8. Kevin Pierce says:

    Is there any video of these machines in action?

    • awjt says:

      I was thinking the same thing.  I’ll look on Youtube… Here’s a smaller 5k in operation. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAv03bScgsE

      not a whole lot on there with obvious searching. Anyone else care to try?

      • Kevin Pierce says:

        “How It’s Made” is one of my favorite shows – They can show you anything in 5 minutes.   One segment that involves a lot of metal stretching is for High Pressure Gas Cylinders - They are made from a single piece of metal as welds are points of failure, so they don’t have any.  BTW, Netflix streaming has  multiple seasons of “How It’s Made”

  9. binkt says:

    Thank you for the excellent article. We need more large scale projects like these to foster nascent industries, and here’s my suggestion: Let’s have a heavy launcher program that constructs non-rocket based (i.e. giant gun) launch systems like a “ram accelerator” to drive mass into orbit, where robotic assembly can construct solar power satellites. Energy beamed among satellites to other on-orbit customers will save mass for missions and form the basis of a space economy. We’ve proven that giant guns are doable with current technology time and time again. Let’s put them to constructive use! What do you think?

  10. AlexG55 says:

    The Sheffield Forgemasters equipment is nowhere near that power, but is capable of making bigger components. The Labour government had offered them a loan to build a 15,000-ton press- this would be used to make nuclear reactor components that can currently *only* be made to that standard in Japan (one-piece pressure vessels). The new coalition cancelled that loan, but have since given them a smaller one. However, they’re not buying a big press any more, as they aren’t sure of the market for nuclear reactor parts after Fukushima. Their current biggest press is 4,000 tons.

    Incidentally, Japan Steel Works- the company that currently makes pressure vessels- also make katanas…

  11. coffee100 says:

    Now is not the time for America to build new forges

    Replace the word ‘forges’ with any other word and the advice will sound just as reasonable.  The justification will also always sound appropriately cautious:  building things is always ‘too expensive’ when the alternative is to do nothing.

    And that is why America cannot build anything and cannot accomplish anything.  As of today, America reached its apex in 1969.

    We have accomplished nothing since.

    • AlexG55 says:

       I don’t know:
      Now IS the time for America to build a new power grid, or high-speed rail system, or heck, space elevator if by “build” you mean “do research that will lead to building”.
      It’s just that we don’t need new forges because the ones we have are perfectly good, and if we scrapped them and built new ones the new ones would be no better.

    • dculberson says:

       “We have accomplished nothing since.”

      Seriously?  That is one truly myopic claim.  Simply false, and demonstrably so.

    • coffee100 writes:

      We have accomplished nothing since.

      What, exactly, do you think we need more or bigger heavy presses or extruders for?

      We still build large machinery.  5D and 6D CNC milling machines with  a 100-plus-foot span, able to mill out a whole large jet aircraft main wing spar in one go.  Presses to do things like the whole bulkhead of a 33 foot diameter Space Shuttle fuel tank in one go.

      American manufacturing output hasn’t gone down.  It’s not gone up, and the rest of the worlds’ is catching up with or slightly exceeding our output per capita, but ours is stable.  Is it possible that we don’t need any more heavy equipment than what we’ve got?

      We’re certainly working smarter, including a lot of technologies not available 50-60 years ago that let us do more, better, cheaper, and on the same scales of size and performance if need be.  Tell someone from 1950 that you could safely weld any length and nearly any thickness of 7075 aluminum at nearly 100% joint efficiency and they’d look at you like you’re crazy; today one can buy a friction-stir welder that does just that, and pretty cheaply.

      Progress does not come from building 100,000 and then 1,000,000 ton presses.  It comes from being smarter and better.

      • mtl_bcer says:

        Good comment

        Might add to this the autoclaves being built to fabricate large size composite parts used in modern aircraft; I am sure Boeing has something big, and I recall hearing about an autoclave built in Belfast for Bombardier’s CSeries wings fabrication.

  12. Bob Bownes says:

    There are a few similar types of machines on display at the Henry Ford Museum. The two or three story tall generator is impressive. Until you realize it is a single casting…Then simply _moving_ it is impressive.

  13. Justin says:

    Just as working with magnesium was unlike working with steel, working with the carbon fiber composites that are being larger and larger parts of modern planes is unlike working with steel or magnesium.
    The machines that are making the body parts and spars of the new Boeing 787s are only 2-3 stories tall, but are still rather impressive machines.

  14. anansi133 says:

    This is great stuff. Usually I have to wait for a system to break before anyone asks how it works. Nice to find these questions asked of a still functional system!

    The nationalism angle seems to highlight a big cultural blind spot to me: that these presses were designed by one particular nation state, doesn’t mean diddly squat to the multinational corporations that use these presses today.  It seems clear to me that nationalism is obsolete-as a way to make collective decisions. It’s still quite useful for keeping the market under some kind of control.  Nobody knows yet just *how* obsolete nation states are. Finding that out will take a very different kind of weaponry than these machines can make.

  15. gandalf23 says:

    I just bought a 20,000 pound press, and passed on a 40,000 pound one because it was too scary.  The previous owner said he fired it up for a month, then bought the 20,000 pound one because the 40k scared the bejezus outta him.  Man, I can’t imagine  50,000 _ton_ press.  Do they give tours?  :)  

  16. selfish says:

    Can you write more? I want to know more!

  17. Without wanting to disagree for a moment with the general thrust of the article, I think it way overplays the German advantage in jet technology. Both sides still relied on piston-engine aircraft, and the Allies had the second jet in the combat, the Gloster Meteor, only weeks after the Me 262.

    Of course, in ballistic missile technology Germany was years ahead…

  18. Kaleberg says:

    1) The Allies weren’t that far behind the Germans in producing jet engines. They were developed by the British and I read a charming story about the British officer who delivered the first engine to Los Angeles for flight testing in the US. He was arrested by the FBI. Jet engines, were the first practical turbine engines. In the early 40s, the turbine was a new form of power system, based on the new ability to manufacture the necessary curved surfaces and dynamically manage the combustion. Nowadays, we have jet engines and turbine power generators based on the same principles.

    2) The auto industry, among others, use presses that are basically little brothers of the ones featured here. They squeeze out an entire half a car in one cycle. Of course, cars are made of much lighter metal, but this process and finite element simulation has made cars more efficient and safer. On the other hand, they’ve eliminated a lot of welding and assembly line jobs.

    3) This kind of government supported private sector development is really quite common. Look at the first computers, synchrotron light sources, the telegraph, geosynchronous satellites and the like. Just about every major technology has been pushed and backed by the government at some point or another. Of course, right wing ideologues bitch about the government picking winners and losers, but it’s either that or go back to knapping flints.

    • Kaleberg writes:

      2) The auto industry, among others, use presses that are basically little brothers of the ones featured here.

      The auto industry are pressing steel (and increasingly, aluminum)- not forging it.  They’re taking thin sheets and cold forming by bending and stretching.

      Both involve pressure and forms, but only one involves heated metal and metal flowing like a thick liquid in the dies.  Auto body pressing is essentially just high-speed origami with slightly stretchy sheets…

    • aniptofar says:

      1) Turbine tech predates wwii.  
      2)  Presses are not forges.
      3) When the money goes to campaign contributors for votes/money and no lasting capability, yea, we bitch.  These were built for gov’t purposes for gov’t equipment.  The fact they had uses outside of the gov’t was just a side effect.

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