One common theme of End Of the World As We Know It (EOTWAWKI) novels, and an always interesting discussion topic, is how do you rebuild society after [insert disaster here]? What minimum technological level do you need in order to pick up the pieces of the 20th century and get things running again? I think we tend to both over and under-estimate what is necessary. I say this because I was cleaning out my closet and found the overhaul manual for a Pratt and Whitney Double-Wasp engine.
The R-2800 was a relatively common WWII high performance engine, found in the Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat, B-26 Marauder and a “few” other planes. I have not tangled with one yet, but I grabbed the manual and a lot of other overhaul and repair books when a technical college was being converted to a liberal-arts junior college. Yes, I dove the dumpster. No, I have no idea when I will ever need these things, they are shedding bits of paper and faux-leather, and weigh a ton. But you never know . . .
The R-2800 is a complicated machine in itself. Even simple four or five cylinder air-cooled, carbaurated engines are complicated, because they are finicky. You have to get the rods and cam shaft balanced and in the proper round. The pistons and piston rings must fit just so, with a tiny amount of space (like, hundredths of an inch), ditto the valves and their guides. Just look at one cylinder and you can see how much machining is required to get all the parts made, then to make them fit as snugly as they have to. And these are not as touchy or complicated as later engines. And working on a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine? Eh, they squeezed so much into such a small space that you can never get to what needs fixin’. Because the easy to reach things never break. Murphy and all that. And it was perfected in 1942.
Think about that. No computer design, no computer models to use to test materials. The plans were drawn by hand, the parts machined by hand, measured with hand tools, adjusted by hand with the aid of pneumatic power tools (sometimes.) The math was done with a slide rule. Computers would have been nice but were and are not necessary. Electricity? Necessary for refining the aluminium and for running the compressors that created the high-pressure air for some tools, but again, there are ways around that.
But think about the tools that made the parts, and the tools that made the tools. That’s where things get complicated, the proverbial 90% of the iceberg underwater. You can’t wave your hand and create lock-washers, safety wire, piston rings, 140 octane (!) aviation gasoline, and other things. That’s where the EOTWAWKI stuff tends to fall flat for me. I know the industrial history and some background, and you need tools to make tools to make stuff. I have no idea how to run an industrial lathe, or to smelt metals and cast a cylinder head. I know the theory, and I’ve seen old films of it being done. But me? Nope. I have a book understanding of how Victorian-era belt-driven machinery and steam engines work, but I have no idea how to put them together or run them.
Can you recreate an oil refinery from scratch, or even a way to make lamp oil (kerosine)? Do you know a machinist who could make a cylinder, or camshaft, or that R-2800? That’s the kind of knowledge and tools a lot of authors and others seem to miss in many of the zombie/Carrington Event/EMP/unspecified disaster books and shows. Granted, if we need Hellcats and B-17s and B-25s again, we’ve got a passel of other problems to sort out as well.