Resurrecting the USS Monitor's famous pump

The casting of new parts for the USS Monitor required more than a decade of conservation and work

For more than 150 years after the celebrated Civil War ironclad USS Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the landmark engines and pumps that drove history's first mechanized warship have been silent.

Recovered from the Atlantic in 2001, the Victorian-era machines weighing more than 20 tons have spent most of their days slumbering in giant treatment tanks when conservators were not painstakingly removing stubborn coats of marine concretion.

Even after their original surfaces began to emerge — and some components were disassembled — X-ray analysis revealed so much structural loss due to marine corrosion that any hope of making them move as they once did was abandoned.

But after more than five years of work, an experimental effort to recreate one of the ground-breaking ship's most historic machines is poised to bring back at least some of the steam-powered sound and commotion that once filled its engine room.

Funded by a company linked to its pioneering inventor, conservators at the USS Monitor Center of The Mariners' Museum have used reverse-engineering to produce a working replica of one of the ship's famed Worthington pumps.

This Sunday they'll fire it up for the museum's observance of the 154th anniversary of the Monitor's legendary clash with the Confederate ironclad Virginia in the March 8-9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads.

"We want to do more than tell the story of the Monitor's engines at their last moment. We want to tell the story of when that engine was alive — when everything on it was moving and whirly-gigging around inside the engine room," conservator William Hoffman says.

"So what we've tried to do is bring the Worthington pump back to life. People will literally be able to see it, hear it and smell it working just as the originals did."

Landmark pump

Though little known today, the pump invented by 23-year-old New Yorker Henry R. Worthington in 1840 sparked a revolution in naval, hydraulic and propulsion engineering.

Before he devised a pump driven directly by an engine's steam rather than a mechanical connection, every steamship boiler in the world lost water and power whenever the engine idled, forcing crews to feed the thirsty boilers by hand.

That was an especially demanding task for vessels negotiating canals, where they might be forced to idle their engines for long periods while waiting for the locks to drain or fill.

But every craft propelled by steam was affected.

"Before Worthington, they used hand pumps and buckets to keep the boilers replenished," Monitor Center and Foundation Director John V. Quarstein said.

"This was the first independent pump."

Automatic in action and controlled by the boiler's water level, Worthington's new feed pump was simple, lightweight and compact, Hoffman says, and it did its job without the aid of a crank, shaft or flywheel.

By the time the inventor opened a small shop outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1845, he had added so many refinements that he began winning contracts from the nation's growing steam-powered Navy.

So efficient and reliable were his designs that the name "Worthington" became the gold standard of pumps, attracting the admiration of such figures as John Ericsson — the visionary naval architect and engineer who began building the Monitor in late 1861.

He used two to feed the boiler of his revolutionary ship.

"The people who collaborated on the Monitor were the foremost technological figures of the Victorian era," Quarstein says.

"Ericsson called Worthington the finest hydraulic engineer in the nation — and that was no small praise from a man with an ego as big as Ericsson's."

That sterling reputation helps explain why the restless crew of the Monitor began to calm after their captain ordered the "Worthington pumps" into action on the stormy Cape Hatteras night when the ship began to take on water.

But though Capt. James P. Bankhead underscored their use in his later report — and noted how they initially stemmed the rising flow — the Monitor ultimately sank with the loss of 16 sailors.

"They didn't say, 'Break out the pumps!' They said, 'Break out the Worthington pumps!' It was their best chance of salvation," Quarstein says.

"But once they heard the fire go out and the pumps fall silent, they knew they'd lost the ship."

Working replica

Building a replica of the Worthington pump was not the first goal of conservators when they began working on the 4.5-foot-long, 400-pound machines.

What they wanted was the practical experience of disassembling and treating each pump's roughly 120 parts after removing 140 years of marine concretion and corrosion.

That training would help them take on such enormous artifacts as the main steam engine, which not only weighs nearly 20 tons but also incorporates an untold number of components, Hoffman says.

"We talk about the Victorian era as if it was the Dark Ages. But they were very sophisticated in the design and fabrication of these machines," he said.

"It's taken us five years to recreate something they were making by the hundreds every week."

Still, when it came to telling the story of the Monitor's importance as history's first mechanized warship, few people thought a computerized simulation based on 3D scans of the parts would be more instructive and engaging than a moving pump, Hoffman says.

So in 2010 he and his colleagues began making molds for a partial trial recreation that blossomed into a full working replica.

Funded with $40,000 from Curtiss-Wright Flow-Control Co. — the successor to Worthington's original firm — the conservators cast dozens of new iron and bronze parts at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, then had additional parts and machining done by Master Machine and Tool Co. Inc. of Newport News.

New gaskets came from Hampton Rubber Co. Inc.

Conservators tested the replica for the first time on Dec. 29 — just two days short of the 153rd anniversary of the Monitor's demise.

As the piston slid back and forth, it filled the cavernous Monitor Center lab with a sound that had not been heard for years.

"I was pretty confident it would work. But you never know," Hoffman says.

"When you closed your eyes and listened, you were back on the Monitor. It put you back on that ship."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend

Where: The USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum, 100 Museum Drive, Newport News

When: Friday through Sunday, with lectures, tours, demonstrations, re-enactments, Civil War Beard Competition, Civil War food tasting and iron casting at various times and demonstration of the Worthington pump replica at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: Most programs are included in museum admission of $13.95 adults, $5.95 children 3-12. Additional fees apply for lab tours, food tastings and other events.

Info: 757-596-2222; battleofhamptonroads.com

ONLINE: Go to dailypress.com/history to see a photo gallery and video.

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