Nuclear, O&M

ASME boiler code became constitution for steam age

Issue 2 and Volume 100.

boiler code

ASME boiler code became constitution for steam age

Excerpted from three articles by David Nichols

Boiler explosions were the scourge of American life from the mid-19th century through the early 20th. Some 50,000 Americans died every year in these accidents, which, during the 1850s, occurred on average once every four days.

As with automobile wrecks today, accounts of boiler explosions were common fare in daily newspapers. Only truly spectacular explosions received anything more than local attention. Even so, for well over a half century before the 1915 adoption of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers` (ASME) boiler code, there were an unsettling number of such explosions, which, owing to their outrageous claims on human life and property, served to keep steam power`s seeming capriciousness in the national news. Public awareness grew and with it public displeasure.

Increasingly, the mechanical-engineering fraternity found itself embarrassed by the mounting death toll and property damage from boiler accidents, particularly in light of the profession`s many spectacular successes and the public adulation these had brought. As the 20th century opened, engineers realized they still could not always contain steam`s awesome destructive power.

Manufacturing and inspection principles were big factors in this public-safety crisis. Absent national standards for boiler construction, each state and municipality was on its own. So were manufacturers, who had to try to please all legal jurisdictions that had codes (many did not), an impossible task and a great economic hardship.

Hartford steam boiler sets the stage

In 1857, shortly before the beginning of the American Civil War, a group of businessmen in Hartford, Conn., formed an organization called the Polytechnic Club. The club`s founding followed by three years a disastrous explosion at Hartford`s Fales and Gray Car Works, in which 21 employees died and 50 were injured. Polytechnic Club members shared an interest in the physical sciences and especially wanted to better understand steam technology. The group disbanded in 1861, but not before discussing the concept of combining, in one organization, the twin functions of inspecting and insuring steam boilers.

Shortly after the war`s end, aboard the Mississippi steamship Sultana, there occurred the worst steam explosion ever, which killed 1,200 Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps. Within a year, two former Polytechnic Club members had formed the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co.

Hartford became a prominent national company with an excellent reputation, focusing its energies on boiler safety. Over the years, Hartford inspectors would set high standards for boiler construction and inspection and for industrial safety in general. However, it would eventually fall to the mechanical-engineering profession itself to create the means by which effective standardization of boiler manufacture and inspection could happen.

A changing profession

By the late 1860s, there had developed among mechanical engineers a struggle for the heart and mind of their profession. Historian Monte Calvert has described two distinct and often-opposing approaches to the mechanical engineering practice–the “shop culture” and the “school culture.”

Shop culture refers to the independently owned 19th-century machine shop, which relied on an apprenticeship system to train young engineers. Mechanical engineering was a gentleman`s profession; apprentices were chosen for their social suitability as well as their mechanical aptitude.

The ASME, founded in 1880, was a conservative, business-oriented professional group over which the shop culture held sway. “School culture,” on the other hand, emphasized theory over practice, pure science over applied science and bureaucratic impersonality over personal relationships in engineer training.

It also stressed corporate values over entrepreneurial ones, relying more on objective standards–academic test scores, for example–to measure engineers` fitness to practice. As the 19th century ended, the school culture was naturally more aligned with the emerging corporate shape of American life, with its emphasis on “rationalization” and the “dynamic logic of mass production” and its near worship of a new folk hero–the professional expert.

At base, the engineering professors who fostered the school culture favored the “professionalization” of mechanical engineering along lines followed by civil and electrical engineers, which included large doses of civic utopianism.

By 1905, it was the school culture that mostly trained new mechanical engineers, the demand for whom among corporate employers was sharply rising. The school culture`s coming to the fore brought changes in the mechanical engineers` outlook on what their role in society should be.

Typically, ASME members did not share the utopian visions other engineering groups so often expressed in their professional journals; theirs was a “plain, practical profession,” as one member put it, and practitioners had little use for high-flying notions, especially ones that even remotely threatened entrepreneurial initiative.

For all their distrust of centralized government authority, many mechanical engineers still insisted that the engineer must be “a good citizen, taking part in the civic moments of his day, and throwing whatever light he can upon municipal, state and national engineering problems.” Few engineering problems, of course, rivaled boiler explosions for the danger they posed to life, property and productivity.

Increased emphasis on professional honor and ongoing interest in rationalizing the mechanics of mass production combined to make turn-of-the-century American mechanical engineering fertile soil for the development of a boiler-construction code.

The code

For all its emphasis on corporate system-building and the national marketing of goods, the United States at the turn of the century was an intensely local place. The regional still held sway; local custom and legal prerogatives were jealously guarded. The notion that what applied in, say, Philadelphia should apply as well in Seattle or Santa Fe was foreign to many. Anything that smacked of centralized power was immediately suspect.

And so it was with the idea of a boiler-construction code that legal jurisdictions all over the country could adopt–a code that, properly understood and enforced, would put an end to the contradictory patchwork of local and state boiler regulations that caused manufacturers to stock multiple versions of the same parts to satisfy neighboring cities or states. This is what the ASME had in mind in 1911, when it appointed a boiler-code committee and set to work to rationalize what had been dangerously irrational ever since steam power had revolutionized American life.

There ensued a complicated, four-year history that contained elements of the shop-versus-school struggle within the mechanical-engineering profession and it was symptomatic of the transition from the more random age of corporate and scientific control of technology, with standardization at its base.

Those who resisted the code saw it as an infringement on their freedom to exercise their expertise and on the capacity of the open marketplace to accept good work and reject bad. One Philadelphia engineer–himself a boiler manufacturer–hated the code and unleashed his pen against ASME for creating it. “The writer desires to register a strong protest against further backing of the propaganda for state control of boiler design, with the funds and at the meetings and in the publications of the Society,” John Clinton Parker wrote.

Parker never did cease his decrying of the code and ASME. But, as time went on, most came to see the wisdom and necessity of ASME`s efforts, especially manufacturers, who had long suffered losses when “many a substantial boiler order had to be rejected because the manufacturer had not interpreted the local inspection laws accurately. It was embarrassing, professionally as well as financially, to have a large boiler given a black mark because certain fittings fabricated in New York happened to be somewhat different than the ones acceptable in Pennsylvania,” Wilbur Cross explained in his history of the ASME Code.

If they`re to be of lasting consequence, revolutions–be they political, social or technological–have to surrender some of their early spontaneity in the interest of social order. Every revolution that`s to stand must submit to a constitution. In some respects, the ASME boiler code was the “constitution” that followed the revolution brought to American life by steam technology. It amounted to a rational enhancement of the inventors` dreams and a solution to problems created by the technology they developed.

The code was a tremendous achievement and its adoption a rigorous, highly political matter in its own right. Unlike a political constitution, however, the boiler code wasn`t a legal document but a voluntary standard to which manufacturers agreed to adhere, for the sake of public safety, professional honor and a measure of standardization that would make everyone`s work easier and more efficient.

The National Board

Ultimately, however, public safety was a political matter. “So now we have the enigma of having a well-written and [ASME] Council-approved Boiler Construction Code, which has no standing whatsoever until it has been legally adopted by a jurisdiction. How could the jurisdictions be influenced to adopt the Code as their construction and installation requirements?” so asked Walter B. Parker (no relation to the previously mentioned John Clinton Parker), then-chairman of the Uniform Boiler and Pressure Vessel Laws Society, a group formed in 1915 to make jurisdictions aware of the new ASME boiler code and to persuade them to adopt its provisions as law.

Parker`s was an excellent question. He might well have added: Of what value was the code without competent inspectors, well-trained and fully understanding its provisions, to enforce it? In three years, a new, not-for-profit group called The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors would become the mechanism by which the ASME boiler code became reality where people lived and worked. Its membership would comprise the chief inspectors in the jurisdictions where the code had become law. In time, the National Board`s careful work would attract the attention of jurisdictions that had yet to act on boiler safety.

Members of the fledging National Board represented a fusion of the two groups that had fought for control of ASME–the school culture and the shop culture. Chief inspectors made use of the best and most precise of the new boiler-testing technology, while at the same time relying on time-tested means of determining a boiler`s capacity for safe operation–which is to say they often got dirty on the job. Pure science and applied science each had a place in the National Board member`s tool kit. So did intuition, something the school culture had often disparaged about the rival shop culture.

“I don`t know of any organization that really does more for the protection of community, for the protection of property and for the protection of life than yours,” the chairman of the First National Bank of Chattanooga, Tenn., said on June 17, 1930, welcoming National Board members to their annual meeting.

Then as now, it`s customary for local officials all over the country to assure conventioneers of how much the host community values them and their work. Often such declarations have a contrived ring to them, and everybody knows it while pretending otherwise. W.A. Sadd`s words in Chattanooga that hot summer morning in 1930 were different, though–more straightforward and genuine-sounding. They conveyed an unusual sincerity. One can only speculate, 65 years later, that Sadd`s remarks pleased the “boiler men,” who knew firsthand just how bad things could go when steam went awry. z


David Nichols is the author of two books about Ernie Pyle, the beloved American war correspondent who was killed near the end of World War II–Ernie`s War and Ernie`s America. He is also a consultant to the producers of a PBS television film about Pyle`s life and times. Nichols lives and works in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Click here to enlarge image

Boiler explosion aftermath. Photo by Ben Bailey.

NBBI`s founding fathers

Carl Myers was born in 1886, in Tiffin, Ohio, where early on he developed an interest in the installation and operation of steam plants. In 1915, the year ASME adopted its uniform boiler code, Myers became an inspector with the Ohio Boiler Inspection Division. Two years later, at age 29, he became the state`s chief boiler inspector, a position he occupied until 1939.

As chief inspector, Myers quickly came to realize what any other observer of the tangled boiler scene could see: that, barring any national standards, manufacturers had to attempt to satisfy all jurisdictions in which their products might be used, plus the standards of those insurance companies that wrote boiler insurance. On Dec. 2, 1919, in New York City, Myers and several other inspectors had an informal meeting at which Myers broached the idea of a national organization of inspectors. His companions liked the idea, and the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors (NBBI) came into being. Two years later at an American Boiler Manufacturers Association meeting, Myers outlined the three primary objectives of the National Board: “one code, one inspector and one stamp”–words that would become the motto of the National Board.

The Board grew quickly, and with ever-increasing demands on the Board`s tiny office, Carl Myers left his Ohio chief inspector`s job in 1939 to become the Board`s full-time secretary/treasurer (a title that was changed to executive director in 1958). Myers led the Board through two world wars and into the beginning of the civilian nuclear power program. When Myers died of a heart attack in 1963 at the 32nd General Meeting of the National Board, the National Board Inspection Code was in its sixth edition. Upon Myers` death, the Board`s quarterly publication, the National Board BULLETIN, said about Myers: it was largely through his efforts that “the legal recognition given to the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code was accomplished, a position that is unique in the field of legislation.” Carl Myers nourished the Board for more than 44 years and made life infinitely safer for his fellow citizens.

Sam Harrison, the Board`s second founding father

Sam Harrison was about six years old when his father, Edward, was killed in the explosion of a carbolic-acid tank–the blast apparently set off by a blow torch. Harrison later made a career out of preventing such explosions as executive director of the NBBI.

Born in 1915, four years before the National Board`s founding, Sam Harrison was elected executive director of the National Board in 1968. During his tenure, the organization:

¥ Became a worldwide entity when it began issuing stamps providing foreign-made boilers and vessels were Board registered;

¥ First used computers in its work;

¥ Began storing duplicate data report films in a protected underground vault;

¥ Deepened its involvement in safety-valve testing;

¥ Revised and updated the National Board Inspection Code;

¥ Developed three symbol stamps–“R” (repair), “VR” (valve repair) and “NR” (nuclear repair)– to provide direct evidence on a vessel or component which verified that repairs had been done in accordance with the Code; and

¥ Built the National Board`s current headquarters.

“Sam Harrison`s personal goals were relatively simple,” read the National Board`s quarterly publication, the BULLETIN, after his death in 1985. “He wanted every jurisdiction in the world to understand and accept boiler and pressure vessel standards and the objectives of the National Board. He wanted safety and peace for all God`s vchildren. He appreciated a good joke, a good argument, a devoted friend, a worthy cause, a loyal associate and the beauty of nature. He had two great loves: his family and the National Board …”