- Historic Sites
The John Bull Steams Again
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
In early September of 1831, Isaac Dripps, master mechanic of the nascent Camden and I Amboy Railroad, stood staring at a miscellaneous assortment of bolts, levers, and pipes I that he was expected to assemble into a working locomotive. The engine had been ordered by the New Jersey line from Robert Stephenson of Newcastle, England, then the world’s leading locomotive builder, who had shipped it across the Atlantic in parts, accompanied by nothing much in the way of instructions. Dripps, who was barely out of his teens, had never seen a locomotive before, but he set to work, and within two weeks he had the John Bull ready to run—a clear augury of how successfully we Americans would take to this English invention.
The engine ran and ran and ran, pulling passengers at speeds up to thirty-five miles per hour, but finally in 1849 she was demoted to humble shop duty. By this time, however, railroads had begun to transform the nation, and the John Bull’s owners realized they had something of a marvel in their hardy pioneer. So they never sent the engine to the scrap heap and, in 1876, they cleaned her up and sent her to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Nine years later, they presented her to the Smithsonian Institution, and there she rests today, the oldest operable locomotive in the world.
She is currently in the care of John H. White, Jr., the Smithsonian s Curator of Transportation, and it was up to him to decide how her 150th anniversary should be marked this September. In this article, he describes the audacious plan he finally lit on, a plan not merely exciting to the participants, but one that helps fulfill what White sees as the historian’s challenge: “To break through barriers that make us see artifacts of the past as remote, obscure relics. A sensitive observer must come to understand them as ordinary objects that were once undistinguished participants in everyday life. Only if we can understand material culture in this sense can we interpret the past beyond the antiquarian level. ”
Raising the dead is normally the business of those possessing supernatural powers, but occasionally ordinary men are associated with such arcane enterprises. My involvement in resurrecting the venerable John Bull constantly evoked for me the classic theme of death and rebirth. To rekindle motion and warmth in a long-silent vessel and have it move and speak again has a magical quality.
My earliest impressions of the John Bull in no way suggested that one day I would be at her throttle, clicking over the rails with steam up; such a thought would indeed have seemed the ultimate fantasy. I first inspected the engine twenty-three years ago when I began work as a museum aide. I was only a temporary summer employee, a young man and very conscious of my humble station amongst the scholars and patricians who managed the old U.S. National Museum, a major branch of the Smithsonian Institution. Chief among its sacred possessions was the John Bull. Donated in 1885, it was the first engineering relic accessioned by the museum, and it stood in the pale gloom of the Arts and Industries Building’s East Hall. This vast Victorian structure, opened to the public in 1881, had all the gaiety of a Romanesque cathedral. Even on a bright summer day, the interior lighting was only a somber glow from clerestory windows, fifty feet or more above. The setting was one of reserve and old-fashioned dignity; “Do Not Touch” signs were really not required.
I was curious about the mechanical arrangement of the engine, which was like nothing I had seen before. One could see a fair amount from the floor, yet I yearned to climb over and under every inch of this rumpled black ark. But there were always too many staff members wandering about the floor. One evening, though, I stayed late to finish some filing. The offices were closed, the exhibit halls empty. On my way out I was passing the locomotive—then the sole example in the Smithsonian collection—when the happy thought occurred to me: I was alone with my alluring friend. I was in no hurry and it was still fairly light outside on that early summer evening. And so in a half hour of uninterrupted study I solved the mystery of the drop-hook valve gear by lifting and shifting the levers and connecting linkage. Soon, mounting the footplate seemed perfectly natural. Next I tried the throttle lever, but it was frozen tight and would not budge. Finally I succumbed to the major temptations: the whistle and the bell cords. The whistle was, of course, silent, but the bell gave forth a merry peal. With that I beat a retreat and headed home.