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Marking time

Marking time

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Railway sleepers

In the course of some work I have been doing lately, I have been seeing a lot of railway sleepers. I can’t look at them without thinking about the work of cutting, carting and installing them.

stacks of new sleepers in the Aurizon depot at Emerald, Queensland. They look like they have been sawn from fairly small trees, and the coloured stripes across the ends suggest that some of them have been mechanically stress-graded.

I have a sleeper-cutter’s broad axe. Picking it up is a good way to remind myself how sedentary my life is, and how soft the skin on my hands.

A compilation of documentary films made in the 1920s and 1930s about timber getting in Western Australia. A piece entitled The sleeper cutter, about hand hewing of railway sleepers, starts at 9:15.

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Monday 7 July 2014

The putter

In Sheffield (once the great centre of cutlery manufacture) the person who assembles and adjusts scissors is called a putter-together, sometimes putter-togetherer, often shortened to putter. It takes years to develop the skill and judgment to do this job really well.

In this video we see Cliff Denton at work. He is a putter at Ernest Wright & Sons Ltd, one of the few Sheffield businesses that still makes high quality scissors in the traditional way.

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Friday 20 June 2014

John Smeaton, on working solo

I am committed to Continuing Professional Development. I try to keep up with the current technical literature. Just now, re­minded by John Smeaton’s birthday, I have been re-reading his ac­count of the design and building of the third Eddystone Light­house. It’s a big book, full of fascinating detail. He wrote it at the end of his long career, as he looked back on his most celebrated project.

He explains why he chose to work on his own during the early stages of his work. He was stuck in London between meet­ings with various important people, as he grappled with the problem of securing the lighthouse tower to the wave-swept rock:

It seeming therefore to be a first principle, to cut the rock as little as we could help ; and for this end, to humour its irregularities as far as we could, so as to get a firm fixing for our work ; on this account it appeared necessary, as the first step to be taken (from the dimensions already ob­tained, and by the methods already specified) to construct a complete Model of the rock, in the condition I found it : which being done, a second model might then be formed, shewing to what the rock was to be reduced, with the manner of applying the work of the building thereto ; and so as to describe the external general form, which would be the whole of what was then wanted, for present de­ter­mi­na­tion ; and for adjusting the work of the approaching season. These models I determined should be the work of my own hands ; and this I foresaw, must in its own nature be a work of Time.

THOSE of my readers, who are not in the practice of handling mechanical tools themselves, but are under the necessity of applying to the manual operations of others, will undoubtedly conclude, that I might have saved much time, by employing the hands of others in this matter : and on the idea of the design being already fixed, and fully and accurately, as well as distinctly made out; that is, sup­pos­ing the thing done, that was wanted to be done, it cer­tainly would have been so: and had I wanted a duplicate of any part, or of the whole, when done, I should certainly have had recourse to the hands of others. But such of my readers, as are in the use of handling tools, for the purpose of contrivance and invention, will clearly see, that provided I could work with as much facility and dispatch as those I might happen to meet with and employ, I should have all the time and difficulty, and often the vexation, mistakes and disappointments that arise from a communication of one’s own ideas to others; and that when steps of invention are to follow one another in succession, and dependance on what preceded, under such circumstances, it is not eligible to make use of the hands of others.
      I had also a further reason for undertaking this part of the work myself ; which those who shall peruse this account for the sake of information, may not be displeased to know.​——​I have always found in subjects of mechanical invention and investigation, that I can seldom form an original idea so complete, but that by laying it down in its proper dimensions on paper, I could very much mature and improve it ; and where the subject is attended with in­tri­cacy, it is in a greater degree necessary : but in reducing this to a solid, as is the case in making a model, still further corrections and ad­van­tages will often present themselves, that did not appear upon Paper : and this is in a much more eminent degree when the solid is produced from a drawing by the artist’s own hand, than by the hand of another : and still further improvements will occur, by going again over the detail, in constructing the work itself at large. Therefore to avail myself of all possible ad­van­tages of previous light and information, I determined, from the paper materials that I had brought from Plymouth ; as well as those I carried thither ; at once to construct the models above-mentioned myself…


[John Smeaton, A narrative of the building and a de­scrip­tion of the construction of the Edystone Lighthouse with stone … (London: G Nicol, 1793) Book II, Page 70.]

I’m pleased to discover that one of Smeaton’s models is in the museum in Leeds, his home town.

Plan of the sixth course of the base of Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse, showing his design of interlocking dovetailed granite blocks. The hatched part is the rock of the foundation. This engraving is from a nineteenth century book, copied from the original plates in Smeaton’s Narrative.

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Sunday 8 June 2014

John Smeaton’s birthday

Let us take note that John Smeaton, the English civil engineer, was born in Leeds on this day 290 years ago.

Smeaton’s portrait and a piece of doggerel on an old die-cut paper scrap printed by chromo­lithog­ra­phy. It is part of a set of images related to life-saving and lighthouses​—​popular subjects in the Victorian period. There is a more serious portrait elsewhere in this blog.

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Thursday 29 May 2014

Gongs for Thom and Dick

I am delighted that two old friends were recognised in the 2014 Queensland Memory Awards last night.

Thom Blake, historian, was awarded the John Oxley Library Fellowship​—​a 12 month res­i­dency to further his research on the Great Arte­sian Basin. A great choice. I have been to a few arte­sian bores with Thom and know how keen he is, so I’m looking forward to the results.

Richard Stringer, photographer, received the John Oxley Library Award … for his work in documenting Queensland’s landscape and architecture over the past 40 years.

I’ve followed Richard’s work since 1967 or 1968​—​I don’t recall which year, but I do remember that first exhibition in an upstairs gallery in central Brisbane. I was a high-school student interested in photography and Richard was an architect branching out into photography. He showed black and white prints of buildings and architectural features. I remember the graphic treatment of the subjects, with bold shadows, lines and textures accentuated by darkroom manipulations​—​high contrast, solarisation, bas-relief.

In the 1970s Richard started to travel the countryside for the National Trust of Queensland recording historic buildings and places. He made straight documentary photographs, but he used his eye for light and shadow to reveal the form and use of the places​—​the best of these photos have a striking graphic quality, on top of their documentary value. His thousands of negatives become more valuable as time passes. He has continued adding to this archive, in the course of personal projects and com­mis­sioned work.

I have developed my own schoolboy interest in photography, alongside my work in architecture and conservation. I rate my­self as competent, but there are projects where I know I need to call on Richard. I have always enjoyed working with him and been delighted with the photographs he has made. On other jobs I have used pictures from his archive for reference. It is terrific to be able to ask him if he has photographed a certain place​—​in Bundaberg, Bourketown or Birdsville​—​and find that he has.

Richard at work with his camera. He handles his equipment with un­con­scious deftness. The technical stuff is complicated, but for him it has be­come au­to­matic. His whole attention is on the subject in front of him. In 2002 we were on a job at the former Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum and I took these pictures to remember the occasion. Richard was using his 4x5 inch Sinar camera, and wearing his standard issue rag hat and pair of shoulder bags containing a stack of Grafmatic film holders, a spot meter, and a lens or two. He mostly uses digital methods now, with a sensibility built on long experience with large format film.

Richard has recently set up a website where you can see some of his work and order prints.

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Thursday 17 April 2014

Britannica landscape

Here’s something delightful​—​24 volumes of an Encyclopaedia Britannica transformed into a mountain landscape by the artist Guy Laramée. I have already admitted to a liking for the printed Britannica, but I know that’s outmoded. Thanks to the blog Colossal for re­veal­ing this work to me.

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Railway sleepers
The putter
John Smeaton, on working solo
John Smeaton’s birthday
Gongs for Thom and Dick
Britannica landscape

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