By Jillian Heller
This seemingly plain wide wooden box holds the necessary tools for a mechanical engineer. This profession was established as its own field during the 19th century. The new found understandings of physics and calculus, along with the advancement of technology from Europe’s industrial revolution gave rise to mechanical engineering. This sector of engineering includes the design, construction, and operation of machinery. It includes the study of each individual part as well as the operating appliance as a whole.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries mechanical engineers used numerous technical drawing instruments to best sketch their illustrations and take measurements. On this particular box, the top has an engraved labeling, “10 Hard Rubber Curves for Mechanical Engineers.” The contents include various French curves and a pencil. These items were typical to find in such a box. A French curve is a template with a specific angle and shape usually composed of metal, wood, or plastic. All of the curves in our box are made of black plastic.
The primary use of a French curve is to sketch a smooth flowing line. To do so, there needs to be predetermined drawn points that will then be connected. Various parts of the French curve will serve to match different segments of the plotted points. The sharper the desired curve, the more plotted points needed. The French curve would then be placed to intersect at least two of the points and shifted as needed to fit the desired design. When sketching along the edge of the curve, the engineer must stop short of the last point intersected and shift the curve to align with the next set of points to be intersected.1 This is done in order to make the current line connect smoothly to the rest of the line to be drawn. The use of the French curve should result in a smooth flowing curving segment. The engineer could either use a pencil to trace or a knife to cut around its edges. French curves could be bought individually or in sets depending on the Engineer’s needs. Below is an image of a 1917 catalogue selling drawing curves, very similar to the ones we have.2
It can be understood that this box and its contents were very useful to the work of its owner. When viewed closely, it is clear that there are initials etched in pencil on several of the box’s items. “W.C.B” and “Wm.C. Blake” are marked in the corner of the wooden box, as well on a few of the French curves. William Culbert Blake was the proud owner of this mechanical engineering box set. Blake was born in 1865 in New Paltz, NY, to Parents William H.D. Blake and Matilda Reeve Booth. He was raised on his family’s farm and attended New Paltz Normal School. Later, he graduated from the Steven’s Institute at Hoboken, New Jersey, receiving a degree in Engineering. He stayed in New Paltz working as a mechanical and civil engineer, as well as a farmer, until his death on July 11th, 1936.
During Blake’s time, there were journals and magazines very useful to practicing engineers. Many articles in such publications aimed to better educate engineers from home. They published scientific research in the field and detailed how specific appliances operate. For example, the Home Study Magazine of 1897 ran by the Colliery Engineer Company in Scranton, PA included the titles, “How to Test Plumbing,” “Accurate Pencil Drawing,” and “The Velocity of Electricity.”3 These writings kept engineers like William C. Blake informed and up to date. In addition, these magazines, much like our magazines of today, ran advertisements that relate to their articles. They often marketed other scientific books, journals, and materials that would be useful to its readers.
These magazines and newsletters are possibly where engineers such as Blake bought their technical tools, like the ones in his wooden box. Specifically, Blake’s curves and stencils are from two Mechanical Engineering companies. One of which is the company advertised in the magazine pictured, “Kolesch & Co.” It can be speculated that Blake may have had more than one wooden box set of French curves since this box in particular includes two different brands. The other maker included in his box is “Keuffel & Esser Co.”, which often goes by the abbreviation K&E. This maker is the more present one, making up five of the seven remaining curves. K&E is also the maker of the wooden box that holds all of the curves.
This tool set can be dated to around to 1897, the earliest, based on one of the K&E serial numbers.4 This year fits our timeline since at that time, William C. Blake was around 22 years old, about the age he would be studying engineering at the Steven’s Institute. These tools would be the utensils that Blake first used to exercise his interest in mechanical engineering. But it must be understood that this mechanical engineer box is very special to its time. Although top of the line to an early 20th century mechanical engineer like Blake, ever increasing technology has made most of these drawing aids obsolete.
1 “Use of the French Curve.” Beginning Structural Engineering Guide Book. Integrated Publishing, n.d. Web.
2 Illustrated Catalogue and Price-list of Drawing and Tracing Papers, Sun Print Papers and Equipments, Drawing Instruments and Materials, Surveying Instruments, Accessories, Etc. 11th ed. New York: Kolesch, 1917. 127. Print.
3 “Home Study Magazine.” The Colliery Engineer Company 2.4 Scranton, PA (1897): 55-62. Print.
4 “How To Date Your Keuffel & Esser (K&E) Instruments.” Surveying Antiques. N.p., n.d. Web.