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A New Blower for Op. 1458

The Inaugural concert in February '08 for Aeolian Pipe Organ Opus 1458 was always going to be a close run thing, with the possibility of any number of “teething problems” marring the music, but as it happened very few issues arose, the one very odd cypher (a ventil wire making intermittent contact with pedal note no. 3 on the bourdon ) kept off for almost the entire event, and only became ugly during the final stages of a very long day, and after much refreshment had been consumed. A bigger problem, which almost prevented the whole thing was the lack of blower.

How many blowers have I been offered when I did not need one? And at the stage where one was essential, where were they all? Such is life. At the last moment a 1 ½ horse-power “Discus” machine was found, completely stripped down, repainted, and the three phase motor adapted to run on house mains. This gave a pretty good supply of wind at around 7” water gauge-ideal for the main organ, but inadequate for the 8” solo division. This blower certainly got me out of a jam, and so long as anything approaching full organ was not needed it was fine. With the inauguration well over, and many other issues dealt with my thoughts turned again to the wind supply.

Old Discus blower restoration
Old Discus Blower restoration
Old Discus Blower before reassembly
Old Discus Blower before reassembly
Old Discus blower being installed after restoration
Old Discus blower being installed

About a year ago, I had become acquainted with the rusty remains of a large blowing plant in a church in Torquay, which was surplus to requirements. It was a monster, and seemingly in desperate need of a new, and better home. At the time the seemingly impossible size and weight of the thing intimidated me, additionally it seemed as if the church had been built around it, so small were the access doors. Then, one day I just woke up early with the clear conviction in my head that I needed a new blower, and this old machine was going to be it!

Adrian Tuddenham, of “Poppy Records” in Bath, happened to be in the area, and having confirmed that this old wreck was still where I last saw it, and that it was more than available (“can you please shift it for us?”) we decided to go down to reconnoitre. In the mean time I had gone back to look at some photos that I had taken last time, and “you know” I said to myself, “it's not that big really”. Well, we got to the church, and how wrong I was! As we descended into the vault, which had at one time also housed a Gentlemans toilet, it seemed to have grown, as if, nourished by the damp lavatorial air, like a giant rusty cylindrical mushroom, it was ready to burst. How on earth were we going to shift it?

The 'New' Blower as found.
The 'New' Blower as found.
Starter and Isolator.
Starter and Isolator.
Disassembly in progress.
Disassembly in progress.

I had chatted to Mr. Fothergill, of B.O.B. Organ blowers of Wareham in Dorset, and he had assured me that it would “all break down” quite nicely, and so we tried one of the great nuts on the end of the studding holding the whole job together. To my surprise, it was easily moved and, in fact nearly all of the nuts, bolts screws and flanges that we tried were easily removable. It was if this sleeping giant saw the opportunity of release from its grimy dungeon and was doing all in its considerable power to make things easy for us-or am I being sentimental?

After the end of a long afternoon and evening, what had intended to be an exploratory session turned out to be the means by which we had the job of disassembly half done. Adrian made very careful notes of the “very Victorian looking” starting gear which I had assumed would have to be scrapped, but which he assured me would be possible to fix up again, and we worked on happily, quite oblivious of the darkness, the damp and, much of the time, the low ceiling of our work site.

At about 9.00 a meal at the local Wetherspoon's was definitely called for, and clutching the “Rockingham” name plate that I had discovered, and unscrewed first of all, we sat down to enjoy our food, being conspicuously the dirtiest people in the establishment.

The following day, back we went, and breaking into the drum of the blower were surprised to find a lot of cork sheet, and great wooden discs, like the top of beer barrels. The impellers were almost invisible at this stage, and also in evidence were sheets of tin plate like the leaves of some weird plant. These were the wind deflectors. The whole drum was bounded by long strips of spring steel. It was a curious device, and one that I was keen to learn about. I think Rockingham's were some of the earliest manufactures of this sort of centrifugal blowing machine, and no doubt that in decades following the making of this one, improvements were made, allowing the size to be reduced, and methods of construction simplified, but as we got deeper into the rusty old hulk of the once proud machine I was filled with respect for the sheer scale and ingenuity of it all: the bearings, and the special arrangements for their lubrication, the accuracy of a ground frame that barely needed the universal joint between motor and blower, so accurately was it made, and the monster 5 HP Century motor that crouched at one end, defying us to remove it.

Inside the Blower showing Wooden Disks and Cork.LEFT:
Inside the Blower showing Wooden Disks and Cork.

RIGHT:
Parts lined up outside the Church.
Parts lined up outside the Church.

At the end of the second day in Torquay (the first full day) the job was done, and the immense Rockingham equipment broken down into 5 massive cast iron discs or plates, a neat stack of R.S.J.s and those curious wooden discs, attendant studding, and simply dozens of large old nuts. On the journey home I was wondering what I had done! What if it didn't work, how I was going to accommodate it if it did! Almost immediately after an improvised supper, Adrian set to work, and the results of the evening's labours surprised both of us quite considerably.

The old motor had had a traumatic last few years of its life, culminating in the commutator getting so hot that in its final efforts to drive the blower, it had literally flung off most of the solder connecting the armature windings to it rather like a molten metal version of a garden sprinkler. Perhaps it managed to limp on for a while, or perhaps it was condemned there and then by electricians who may well not have been organ enthusiasts. The cause of the great heat? Probably due to the fact that the brushes (used to start this type of induction motor, and run it up to synchronous speed prior to flying off) had remained in contact with the commutator, grinding away until one day during an extended run, it just critically over heated. Anyone in the vicinity would have heard the motor screaming away - but that was the point - it was buried under the back of the church where no one would have been aware of its plight. And so it was all left to rust-that is until after supper on the evening of the 30th. April 2009.

Try as we might to wait until the morning, we both wanted to see what could be done with the motor, and Adrian was able to confirm that despite the damage, there was no real reason why it would not work, and so we had a go. After checking for shorted windings, frozen bearings and anything else suspicious Adrian cautiously offered it 55 volts and the motor stirred into action with a shower of sparks and a noise like a washing machine full of gravel. After checking that the sparks, and other incandescent debris had not caught the carpet on fire, Adrian cautiously moved to 110 volts. The rattling and sparking seemed to spell disaster, and I began to give up hope of using this grand old relic of the 1920s as a means of power - but Adrian seemed to think that all was normal for this stage in the proceedings. It was quite late now, but we had got so far, that we just had to carry on. What would be the effect of 240 v? I hardly dared wonder.

To carry on, without blowing fuses, we would need to use the starter. This was an excellent unit looking like an elongated lavatory cistern. It was cast iron, and very Victorian. Its function was to remove fairly large resistances, one by one (six in all) as the motor came up to speed. It did this, when installed, by moving pneumatically a pair of brushes over the terminals of these resistances in response to blower pressure. Adrian set it up with some wire that was handy, and contrived a means of operating the starter manually. I held my breath, also a video camera, and Adrian switched on. The noise was terrific, and then, sounding like a jet engine as the starter was pushed, I was convinced that the motor would just burn out. At full voltage it was screaming like a racing car, and after a few seconds we switched off. I could not imagine how this motor could ever be used again. What I did not realise was that the motor had failed to start properly, and was running on its brushes at a speed well in excess of what it was designed to do. Removing the armature (a two-man lift) revealed that there was a lot of corrosion inside, where I now understand that the mechanism for transmitting the motion of the flying weights resides. The bell cranks, and push rod assembly was well rusted, but could be made to work stiffly with some lubrication and a bit of brute force to get it going.

We re-assembled the motor, and again I held my breath. Again the rattling and sparking started, then the high pitched roar as 1460 r.p.m. was reached and then..........I thought Adrian had disconnected it all. Almost silence. No more sparks. Far from having been disconnected, however, the motor had reached sufficient speed, the weights had flown out, the brushes pushed back, and the shorting ring thrown against the commutator and once again, quite simply, it was doing what it was designed to do. Considering that the motor had almost certainly been heading for the scrap heap - helped on its way by a sledge hammer no doubt, our long day of toil, and the lateness of the hour, I think I can be forgiven for being quite moved by it all.

Suddenly I noticed that what I thought would have been an enormous problem had virtually solved itself. Very heavy-duty cables had been used to supply this motor in its previous location, and I had visions of the huge currents required to start and run it, and all the problems that would be caused. But the motor was running now on something a little bigger than bell wire, and had not blown a 13 amp fuse upon several starts. The problem simply did not exist!! Then another thought struck me and for the first time I began to realise what it all meant. I had seen a Century motor, like this one, before. It was on Howard Towlson's Aeolian organ in Syracuse, and I think this brand were invariably used on the Spencer “Orgoblow” blowers that a lot of Aeolians were equipped with. Mine certainly was-I have the details, and upon checking, it was also 5 horse power! In effect I now had a blower of identical power, and similar vintage to what was originally supplied when my organ was new in 1919. The two old timers had found each other!

Armature showing Shorting Ring.
Armature showing Shorting Ring.
Repairs to the Commutator.
Repairs to the Commutator.
Facing off the Commutator.
Facing off the Commutator.

In just under a week Adrian came back for the task of reassembling the whole blower, and in the mean-time I had done very little else but restore and re-paint the various components. Part of the take-off spout needed quite a bit of filling, because of corrosion damage, and the new “pill-box” pneumatic motor for the starter was quite a challenge to make and fit, but by the time we met again, everything was ready for the big day. Actually, it took two days – but from when we started the disassembly to when we were ready to switch on had taken us 14 days. Quite an achievement I think.

New pneumatic motor for the starter.LEFT:
New pneumatic motor for the starter.

RIGHT:
Motor and Starter - bench test.
Motor and Starter - bench test.

Assembling the Rockingham blower was hard work, but rewarding almost immediately. My video and digital images of the disassembly had been very useful, and Adrian's cool head and knowledge of engineering invaluable. New cork sheet for the sound deadening layer underneath the steel bands was purchased locally, new ¼ “ whitworth bolts, wire mesh and cable was brought up from Bath, and when all the proper electrical safety issues had been addressed, it was time to switch on. True, there were still problems with the brushes being thrown off, now the motor had its load, but these were subsequently solved when Adrian lessened the tension of the large coil spring that kept the flying weights in place during start up. It rather looked as if this spring was in fact a replacement of slightly too strong a grade – another mystery partially solved. True, also it seemed certain that the commutator would need to be skimmed in order to work more quietly, but within the space of a couple of weeks I had the blower of my dreams!

some of the cast iron discs awaiting reassembly.
Some of the cast iron discs awaiting reassembly.
Part way through reassembly.
Part way through reassembly.
The Finished Job.
The Finished Job.

© Paul Morris 2009