Coal, Nuclear

ABMA and the boiler industry–Since 1888

Issue 2 and Volume 100.

Centennial special: Boilers

ABMA and the boiler industry–Since 1888

By the American Boiler Manufacturers Association

Steam was a magic word one hundred years ago. Steam meant power; steamboats on the rivers, steamships on the ocean, steam trains to every city, village and town. Steam drove great, smooth-running engines supplying the power in factories. Steam was quiet in such engines, but its strength was apparent as it drove every type of machine on the factory floor from intricate milling machines to giant two-story presses. Steam`s power was also harnessed to drive generators and produce electricity. Steam made the industrial age possible. Boilers made steam.

By the 1880s, a variety of boilers from myriad suppliers were available to those who needed steam for power. It was also at this time that the first electric power generation stations were built using boilers and large reciprocating steam engines to turn the generators. To help guide and control these dynamic activities, and the increasing complexity of industrial growth, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was founded in 1880.

The 1880s were also a time in which boiler explosions were so common that one industry journal carried a regular column headed “The Month`s Accidents.” There were a number of boiler makers who were true craftsmen, men who knew and respected good materials and honest workmanship. They would not and could not tolerate shoddy practices which they knew were responsible for the steady and terrible toll of lives and property loss. So they decided to act.

ABMA formed

The first public reference was brief and cryptic. It took the form of an announcement in the April 1889 issue of a noted industry journal which read, in its entirety, “A convention of boiler makers will be held in Pittsburgh this month.” That two-day meeting, April 16 and 17, at which the American Boiler Manufacturers Association (ABMA) was formed and a constitution adopted, followed several informal meetings in 1888.

According to its constitution, the Association was pledged,

“1st. To establish such standards for materials and workmanship as will ensure uniform excellence of construction of all American boilers and thus secure safety to the lives and property of all communities where boilers are used, and to procure the passage of laws making the manufacture, sale or use of inferior materials criminal offenses.

2d. To concert such measures, and take such actions, as shall be for the interest and advantage of its members especially.

3d. To procure and furnish to its members statistics of the trade, domestic and foreign.

4th. To take such action as shall from time to time be deemed advisable regarding the regulation of price and production.”

(Obviously, prior to antitrust legislation!)

That the first of these objectives was truly number one in their hearts and minds is clear to anyone who reads the early discussions and actions of the members of this new association and reflects on the outcome of their efforts. By coincidence, the journal that reported the first meeting of ABMA, listed, on the same page, “14 explosions, killing 13 persons and injuring 14.” As a speaker at the fourth meeting in 1891 said, “It is but a few years since that (we were) all boiler makers; today we are (all) manufacturers.”

Not content with pious expressions, they adopted at the second meeting (Oct. 15-17, 1889) specifications for the steel and iron to be used in boiler construction. With a start on the problem of ensuring sound materials, they turned to construction practices and accessories. Standard rules for riveting were recommended at the same second meeting, and rules for safety valves were adopted at the fourth meeting.

Early ABMA discussions were vexed by the realization that ABMA members represented only a small fraction of all U.S. boiler manufactures, and there was no way to force them to adhere to ABMA standards except by law. As early as the fourth meeting, a uniform law for boiler inspection was adopted and members were urged to “bring it forward” in their own states. Optimism about accomplishing this proved to be unfounded. At the 1897 meeting the chairman of the committee sadly reported “after seven years of patient labor … in every instance we were repulsed.”

At this same meeting, Col. E.D. Meier, Heine Safety Boiler Co., who had become Secretary of ABMA, presented an historic paper entitled “Uniform American Boiler Specifications.”

Reviewing the work of the committees on material specifications and uniform inspection laws, Meier pointed out that both had been conscientious, but the Specifications Committee had achieved steady progress while the efforts of the Inspection Law Committee had come to naught. He then proposed applying the demonstrated sound method of the Specifications Committee to the question of design and construction, as well as to materials.

“The conviction has grown in me,” he said, “that we have it in our power to educate the public conscience in regard to workmanship in boilers, just as we have done in regard to material. And I see no reason why we should not begin this at once, and continue it as long as we ourselves have something to learn about boiler making, which will be just as long as we build boilers.”

Under the dynamic leadership of Col. Meier, a committee immediately began drawing up such a uniform specification. They were charged to follow the older official specifications (U.S. statutes and rules applying to steamboat boilers, British Lloyds and the British Board of Trade, the French Bureau Veritas and German Lloyds) only insofar as their requirements could be verified by actual facts of calculation and current practice. The committee was instructed “to eliminate rules based on mere guesswork.” The new specifications were to embody new rules which have since become “unwritten law” of the best American boiler shop practice, as reflected in the transactions of ABMA.

Uniform boiler specifications

Only one year later, at the 1898 meeting, the report of the committee was presented, discussed item by item, and adopted. These “Uniform American Boiler Specifications” proved to be the true ancestor of the later ASME Boiler Code, foundation of today`s safe boiler practice.

Times were tough in the early 1890s. Just how tough is borne out by the proceedings of the 1895 meeting: “The continued depression in business having made it difficult for many members to pay annual dues, the Secretary has voluntarily donated $1,000 of the balance of salary due him to the Association, thus reducing the balance due him to $348.90.”

ABMA`s annual meeting called for June 16, 1894, was not held, “owing to insufficient attendance.” The cause was “the prevailing labor troubles,” which culminated in what has come to be called the Debs rebellion. The Executive Committee did meet that year. So, with two meetings in 1889 and none in 1894, one hundred “annual” meetings have been held in one hundred years.

(Incidentally, a few quarterly meetings were held in the early 1920s. This seems to have led to the present pattern of a “Winter Meeting” and the “Annual Meeting” in the late Spring.)

Topical questions

During most of the first 25 years, ABMA business sessions were enlivened by discussion of so-called “Topical Questions.” These were, in the main, technical questions drawn up in advance by a special committee.

The 1890 meeting, for example, tackled a list of 32 questions on boiler settings, number six of which was, “Have you had any experience with automatic stoking apparatus?” The published answer deserves quotation: “Automatic stokers are like shaking grates, a poor excuse for cheap firemen.”

By 1905, topics were more sophisticated, ranging from relative shearing strain of rivets and tensile strength of plates to proper size of blowoff, feed and water-column connections.

Sophisticated or not, discussions were lively. Of particular significance to the industry during this period was the passage in Massachusetts in 1907 of the first state law regulating boilers. Uniform boiler specifications had been written and promoted, yet the problem remained: How do we make these specifications universal in their application?

Meier, ASME initiate code work

In 1911, Col. Meier was elected president of ASME, while serving as president of ABMA (1908-1914). In one of his first actions as head of ASME, Meier asked its Council to bring to the battle for boiler safety the Society`s reputation for broad scientific interests and its demonstrated freedom from commercial bias. In an historic action, the Council … “voted to confirm the appointment of a committee to formulate standard specifications for the construction of steam boilers and other pressure vessels, and for the care of same in service.”

Under the chairmanship of John A. Stevens, a consulting engineer from Lowell, Mass., this committee held a number of meetings and presented a preliminary report in 1913. Some 2,000 copies of this report were sent to professors of engineering, superintendents of insurance company inspection departments, chief inspectors in charge of national state and municipal boiler inspection departments, engineers known to be interested in the construction and operation of steam boilers, manufacturers of boilers and editors of engineering journals. Incorporating many of the comments and suggestions received, a second report was issued Feb. 18, 1914.

ASME code adopted

As might be expected, the proposed code met with opposition from many quarters. There were several stormy sessions, and at one point it was suggested that the committee be reconstituted and a new start made. Wiser heads prevailed, however. A much more cooperative attitude was evidenced at the public hearings of September 1914 and the proposed code moved quickly through two more printings. The fourth printing was the subject of intensive discussion in six long sessions at the annual meeting of ASME in December 1914. After further discussion at the February 1915 meeting of Council, “Rules for the Construction of Stationary Boilers and for Allowable Working Pressures” became an official document of the Society by action of Council on March 12, 1915. It has since been continuously supervised and interpreted by a special committee on the ASME Council, known as the Boiler Code Committee, on which many distinguished members of ABMA have served.

But this was only half the battle. Unless legally adopted, the ASME Code lacked the full force and effect of law, and in 1916 it had not been legally adopted anywhere. To foster the adoption of uniform, ASME-based state laws and municipal ordinances, a nonpolitical, nonprofit, noncommercial association, the American Uniform Boiler Law Society, was formed in 1916. Under that name, and later the Uniform Boiler & Pressure Vessel Laws Society, its reports have been an annual feature of ABMA meetings ever since.

ABMA meetings

Early ABMA meetings were held in major cities; entertainment was appropriate to urban settings and more formal times. Rare was the meeting without a tour of the city, by carriage, by boat, even by trolley car. Familiar, too, was the inspection trip to a local plant of interest to boiler manufacturers. That such interest was not always technical is testified to by the 1891 report, which waxes lyrical about the Anheuser-Busch brewery, “where the amber nectar, which has cheered strong men since the days of the Pharaohs, was dispensed with lavish hospitality.”

And the banquets! It took a strong man to survive one in those days. Witness the 1904 menu: The main items were bluepoints, crab bisque, brook trout, broiled mushroom, filet mignon, squab, ice cream and cake. Not all menus were as straightforward. Humorists were always inventing dishes with the local color and the 1907 banquet featured such exotic dishes such as “flanged” radishes, “corrugated” potatoes, and “smooth-on” jelly.

Nor were the beverages neglected. The 1904 menu started with dry martinis, moved on to white wine and champagne, then through something presumably liquid, described as “Frozen Southern Hotel Punch in Cases,” to brandy and, finally, coffee to keep everyone awake for cigars and speeches. And don`t ever doubt that strength was needed for the speeches. The report of the 1901 meeting devotes 40 printed pages to an even dozen toast responses and speeches that graced what must have been a long evening.

What might be considered the modern pattern of entertainment makes a quiet appearance in the report of the 1922 meeting where the entertainment chairman begins his report, “For the past two years we have had golf tournaments …” The careful historian checks back and finds that the 1920 convention was held at French Lick, the first at a true resort place. Here, then, must be the origins of what now seems a hardy, entertainment perennial, ABMA golf.

Depression era and beyond

The 1930s were another period of industrial development despite the depression. The first clad steel plates were introduced. The first X-ray exam of a fusion-welded boiler drum led to the ASME Code procedures for fusion-welded boiler drums in 1931, and the first Code-certified fusion welded boiler drum was shipped in 1932.

Again in 1941, problems of business practice gave way to the urgent demands of a war economy. Manpower, materials, scheduling, new regulations –these became the center of attention. At the 1943 meeting, the members heard these and other aspects of war-time problems dealt with by R.M. Hatfield, chief of the Boiler Section, Power Division, War Production Board. And then, as the end of the war loomed, the discussions turned to recovery. While the expected difficulties never really materialized, the postwar years were marked by enough activity to keep everyone busy and the discussion lively.

In 1959, ABMA headquarters was moved from New York City to Newark, NJ. There was a considerable difference of opinion among the Board about the justification for such a move, but an amusing (now) story no doubt added considerable impetus to the change. It seems that the Packaged Firetube Boiler Committee had just finished a meeting in the old New York City office and was going to lunch. They all got on the elevator, which promptly dropped them non-stop to the basement. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the telephone lines must have been busy for a few days!

`60s and `70s

For the Association as a whole, several significant events occurred in the 1960s which led to favorable developments for boiler manufacturers and customers. The first involved packaged boilers. Our battle with the organized field craft unions to retain our rights to preassemble boilers and related equipment in our own shops was long and costly. We began with a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Minneapolis and, finally, had a favorable decision in Federal District Court in St. Louis about five years later (1967).

The second very significant event was boiler furnace explosion protection. ABMA led the effort to establish voluntary standards committees under the sponsorship of the NFPA to address this problem.

In 1958, reports of furnace explosions seemed to come from every side. “Plug-in” package boilers were experiencing furnace explosions or puffs with alarming frequency. Large industrial and utility units were by no means immune. The total losses were significant. There was little agreement on what constituted a safe system and less agreement on even such fundamentals as terminology. Into this chaos stepped ABMA which pressed the need for furnace protection standards.

The next two years saw the completion of a great deal of effective groundwork highlighted in 1960 by sponsorship of a new Committee on Boiler Furnace Explosions by the NFPA. They took this action at the request of ABMA and in recognition of the deep concern of ASME, Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and others. The standards developed at that time have been maintained and updated by standing committees. These are also the standards for the boiler industry in a number of foreign countries.

The third event involved ABMA and the Industrial Gas Cleaning Institute (IGCI), an association of air quality control system manufacturers who joined forces to set forth more accurate design criteria for the application of gas cleaning equipment. This was long before “environment” became a household word. Both industries needed this data for their designs and cooperated in the project.

The 1970s were a very turbulent period in the marketplace. Inflation and high interest rates, exacerbated by the 1975 oil embargo, caused a major shift in the source of energy to coal. The trend to energy conservation started, and this was topped off by a major economic recession. In the same period, popularity of nuclear power plants diminished from about 50 percent of utility orders placed in the early 1970s to zero orders in 1980.

Stagnation, reorganization

There was gradual emergence from the recession in the mid `80s for some segments of U.S. business, particularly light industry and the service sectors. But heavy industry remained in a depressed condition and became seriously hampered by foreign competition. There are ongoing struggles between the “Pro” and “Con” groups representing the environment, growth, nuclear power, and coal power; the jury is still “out” on these matters.

Increasing emphasis by electric utilities and industry on better load management, plant rehabilitation and other ways to improve the use and profitability of their existing assets, while good for their customers and stockholders, had a depressing effect on new orders.

An ABMA position paper in 1984 stated that if the order rates stayed as is, U.S. manufacturers could lose the capability to build units as fast as needed when the upturn comes or during a national emergency. The EEI became concerned enough about the situation to ask: “Will the Boiler Industry be there when needed?” A number of meetings and discussions have been held to discuss these matters. Much effort has been expended by member companies to expand their after-market services to customers and the Association is active in promoting the use of steam power vs. Alternate sources.

All of this has led to a crisis within the association because of the change in volume and nature of the source of revenues. With shipments of large boilers falling off, so does the source of dues income. Thus the other segments of the Association must shoulder a greater burden. The organization has grown significantly in the last 25 years and in 1983 there were 26 committees functioning.

Given the fact of the changes in the marketplace, something out of the ordinary was called for regarding administration and future activities of the Association. Two long range planning committees were formed in 1985, one on strategies and the other on financial matters.

The objectives for these committees were: Where are we going? How do we pay for the trip?

The Board responded in 1986 and 1987 to set the future course of action for ABMA. This included rearranging Association activity priorities, revision of the dues structures and extensive internal reorganization.

Throughout history, the ABMA has always been willing to work with change, to accept change, and to use change to the best advantage of member companies and the industry. Even when times were tough, the ABMA survived and rebounded with a renewed dedication to the industry and its consuming public.

ABMA is the best organized and financially the strongest it has ever been. Membership is on the increase, and there is a dramatic increase in interest from prospective members overseas.

Presently, ABMA drafted and implemented its Strategy 2000 Long-Range Strategic Plan. This ongoing planning process has positioned the association not only to be flexible enough to respond to change as it occurs, but it is forcing us to remain ahead of the curve in anticipating change. It is a dynamic plan which begins to define what the industry is, while asking some very hard questions about what it is the industry wants to be and what ABMA members are willing to do to get there.

Getting and keeping members as the ABMA moves into the next Century means offering strong cost/benefit, and being able to demonstrate clearly that membership increases the ability of a member to be more profitable. This perhaps will be ABMA`s most demanding obligation. But the primary step toward adding value to the operation will be to get closer to customers and determine how they define value. That is the industry`s responsibility to its customers, as well as ABMA`s to its customers–our members. z

The boiler industry yesterday and today

Yesterday, most manufacturers made only boilers. Today, few manufacturers make only boilers; now we have systems suppliers.

Yesterday, members worked with contractors. Today, contractors are part of member companies` operations or, if independent, work for member companies.

Yesterday, member companies manufactured every piece of equipment in the United States to keep people on the shop floor employed. Today, products are manufactured as close to the project site as possible, using whatever trained labor is available.

Yesterday, all members of the ABMA manufactured. Today, some only design and outsource all manufacturing.

Yesterday, the industry marketed almost exclusively to U.S. markets. Today, theboiler industry is a vital part of the international marketplace.

Yesterday, it wasn`t much concerned with what the government did–it was self-regulating and inward looking. Today it has had to become more accommodating to governmental influences and learned how to use government regulation to its advantage and to the benefit of its customers. It has continuously sought technology to help it produce equipment that will produce steam more efficiently and economically, because its customers have demanded it.

Yesterday, steam powered the world. Today, steam is taken for granted. The equipment that produces the steam that powers America and the world goes largely unrecognized. When the industry is discussed by those outside, too often it is viewed by century-old stereotypes, as a dirty, rust-belt relic that is inefficient and contributes to world-wide environmental degradation. The smokestacks, assembly lines and manual processes that once revolutionized the world conjure up images of ancient industry history.