AN AMAZING SKILL
A FINE EYE AND A STEADY HAND
For a number of years now, I have been a member of a group of volunteers who have been at work digitizing a large collection of railroad drawings that were donated to our historical society by a major class one railroad. By any measure, these drawings are historic and important to the understanding of the art and science required for the development of railroads in the United States.These drawings are the original “tracings” done in India Ink on “linen”, or more correctly, “tracing cloth”. All were rendered by hand using simple drafting tools: no machines were used! In order to make this collection available, and thus useful, each drawing must be run through a scanner to produce a digital image file. Then each image file’s subject data is recorded in a data base to permit recall of the image file of the desired drawing. As one can easily understand, this entails a lot of looking at, and handling of, these drawings during this imaging process.
As I have scanned drawings through the years, I have gained a great appreciation of the skills the draftsmen brought to their work and I believe these skills should be recognized and lauded. This is my attempt to do this.The first thing I noticed about the drawings was the precision of the linework. At the intersection of the drawing’s lines one observes no smearing, or other defects, even at the magnification made possible by digital imaging. Lines that are meant to abut each other do just that: no little overshoots are seen. An examination of circles reveals no gaps or width variation. In my training at school, I was required to render only one drawing in ink and I remember it as being a nightmare experience. Circles,especially the circles.
I still have my drafting tools and when I examine them today I marvel at how such simple tools, in the hands of masters, have produced such an art-form as are these drawings. The largest drawing that I have helped scan is one of a large, very large, steam locomotive. The size of this drawing is three feet in width and about sixteen feet long. Any steam locomotive is a complicated machine and this particular one is very complicated and very big. Hence the requirement for a large complicated drawing. The objective of the foregoing is to set the scene for this possible horror: spilled ink on the nearly completed drawing! Can you even imagine the pressure the draftsmen most have been under as these large drawings neared completion.
I have observed that the older a drawing is the more “artsy” the lettering appears. The drawings that are dated circa 1885 exhibit lettering that is so “artsy” I have difficulty reading the titles and have given up on the date a few times. By about 1905 some lettering was produced using rubber stamps at “headquarters”- in a cost cutting effort no doubt. I think I prefer the old 1885 way. It is really quite attractive even though it is hard to read. The drawings that best show off these skills are the pre-1900 ones. In these older drawings it is usual for shading to be used in the depiction of various shapes.Threads are drawn in detail. this is unnecessary for communication purposes but nice to look at nevertheless. It must have taken years of practice under the tutelage of a master of the art to achieve this level of skill. Unfortunately, I fear my words do not rise to the occasion: only a viewing of these drawings will do that.
So, who are these men? I do not know. They only make themselves known by the fruits of their skills and their initials at the lower corners of the drawings. The exception seems to be when an apprentice is allowed to sign his work . Thus, I want to end by paying tribute to ” Mechanical Apprentice E.H. Bailey” who left us a series of very detailed drawings of refrigerator car doors. Nice work Mr.Bailey. We appreciate it and will honor it by our preservation work.