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Thursday, October 11, 2018

John Henry

Tennessee Ernie Ford sings "John Henry"

Bayou Renaissance Man got me started with a couple of clips of guys drilling holes in rock the old fashioned way, i.e. by using a hammer and a steel bit, which reminded me of John Henry and the Steam Drill, related by Tennessee, above. I noticed that the men were holding the drill bit with their hands. I can understand doing that in a competition, but when you are working I think you would be using some kind of tongs to hold the bit. Too much danger of getting your hand smashed by the hammer should it miss its mark.

I also remember reading a story about a man drilling rock by hand, but he used two sledge hammers with well oiled handles. The oil made the handles flexible, which meant that when they were swung correctly, they hit with considerably more force than a hammer with a rigid handle. And this guy knew how to swing those hammers, and he would swing them alternately, left, right, left, boom, boom, boom. He must have been a hell of a man. I might be able to get a couple of licks operating like that, but that would be all and then I would have to take a break. For some reason I think it was a story by Neal Stephenson, but I can't imagine what it would have been. Kind of a pity that I don't remember who wrote it because the image sure stuck in my brain.

Since we are talking about hammers, I want to relate this little bit. I remember working at the Ohio State Fair 50 years ago putting up a prefab steel building, and there was a crew next door erecting tents. Three or four guys with big mallets would stand in a circle and take turns pounding on these giant tent stakes. Each one would take a swing with their hammer. They would go around the circle maybe twice and the peg would be in the ground. They were good. Smooth, practiced and efficient. Never seen the like before or since.

1871 Ingersoll Rock Drill
The Ingersoll Rock Drill could be powered by steam or compressed air. Steam was used in quarries or other open air excavations. Compressed air was preferred for mines as a constant flow of steam could make the mine uninhabitable.

The contest between John Henry and the Steam Drill may have taken place during the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia.

Google Map
Open Railway Map

We made good use of a sledge hammer while we were tearing out the old floor in the kitchen of younger son's newly purchased house. The house is 50 years old and they must have put a new layer of flooring down every 5 or 10 years. Underneath each new layer of linoleum or Pergo, was a new new layer of  sheathing, and each of the layers was nailed or screwed down tight. It took us a week to peal it all off and pull all the nails and screws. Well, maybe not a week, but it sure felt like it. We used the sledge to drive a pitch fork or a crow bar under the flooring so we could pry it up and peel it off.

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