Civil War ironclad Monitor's famous pump is resurrected

For more than 150 years after the celebrated Civil War ironclad Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the 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 re-create one of the groundbreaking ship's 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 at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News have used reverse engineering to produce a working replica of one of the ship's famed Worthington pumps.

On 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 Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8-9, 1862.

"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 whirligigging around inside the engine room," conservator William Hoffman said.

"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," he added.

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.

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.

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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.

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 said.

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, Hoffman said.

"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 re-create something they were making by the hundreds every week."

In 2010 Hoffman and his colleagues began making molds for a partial trial re-creation 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 in Newport News.

Conservators tested the replica for the first time on Dec. 29 — 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 a century and a half.

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

merickson@dailypress.com.

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