Rebuilding- From What?

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.

A few, small, moving parts. Nothing too complicated.

A few, small, moving parts. Nothing too complicated.

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.


9 thoughts on “Rebuilding- From What?

  1. That’s one of the many reasons I like Eric Flint’s 1632 stuff. The need for tools to make the tools to make the tools… is brought up and is a real problem. I’m sure the books have a fair amount of handwavium, but not as much as there might have been. A couple of the other reasons I like it is that there is hope rather than unending despair, and while some characters can be idiots, they are naturally distributed: The rural, the ‘downtimers’ etc. are NOT “stupid by default” which has infuriated me in some works.

  2. One “hall-mark” of early “after the Nuclear War” stories was the lack of gun-powder weapons.

    While in some cases, there were “religious” reasons for no gun-powder weapons, the assumption was that nobody remembered the knowledge needed to create early gun-powder weapons.

    Yet, the knowledge necessary to make gun-powder is wide-spread and would be useful enough that once found, the knowledge would spread.

    Obviously, nobody would be making “modern” rifles because those would need a level of industry that wouldn’t exist but early gun-powder weapons could be made by blacksmiths.

    Note, I mentioned the “religious” reasons for no gun-powder weapons, but now days I find it hard to accept as a complete ban requires “everybody” believing guns are bad or those who believe guns are bad have control over everybody in order to enforce the ban.

    Oh, one author had a country with such a ban but had a second country (both very close together) that didn’t have that ban.

    Just how long would the first country survive if the second country wanted the first country’s territory? [Very Big Evil Grin]

    • Considering the fact I could make a fully automatic (actually simpler than a semi-auto) gun in my spare bedroom, I would find it amazing if simple bolt and falling block action type rifles weren’t rapidly in at least individual, one-off type construction. Likely they would fall back on such things as fulminate of mercury primers instead of the newer noncorrosive style, and while I could make black powder, I’m a little vague on exactly how to make smokeless. Somebody might know, I’m not sure how difficult it is. Stainless steel and composite stocks would likely disappear, but I would be surprised to not find every common action currently being used, being made within a couple years. If smokeless powder is too difficult to make, or even if all the different variations optimized for different calibers, proved infeasible, the common calibers might swing heavily in favor of those designed for black powder, like the 45/70 and 30/30, but gunsmithing is just too common a hobby, for them to disappear.

      • From what little I’ve read on it, making smokeless powder safely takes heavy-duty chemistry.

        But I don’t really know enough to say how possible it would be.

    • That’s one reason why the re-creation of artillery gunpowder is a rather important feature of two of the Colplatschki books. Gunpowder is not that hard. Gunpowder for artillery vs powder for muskets and rifles is trickier because of the milling process and consistency. Yup, those without weapons tend to end up working for those who do.

  3. “Do you know a machinist who could make a cylinder, or camshaft, or that R-2800?”

    Actually yes, well I’m unsure if he has the specs for an R-2800 (extremely unlikely, but knowing him, you never know) but he has the skills and equipment. The big question is whether one would have the electricity to run his shop, and whether he had all the materials available (probably around his shop to make one or two, but more than that would require fabricating materials) to make enough to matter.

    Actually thinking about it, my neighbor who designed and built racecar engines for a living, and moved his entire shop’s worth of materials here when he retired, could probably design something similar, and build it if he had the materials. The real crunch would be making the materials, and the three phase power to power the machinery.

  4. The other ‘art’ is actually starting one of those beasts without blowing a jug! And no, most authors skip right over it!!!

    • Yup. The big ones I’ve been around, you start by carefully pulling (pushing, heaving) the prop through, after confirming switches are cold. If all goes well and you don’t encounter a “firm” spot, you proceed to step two. Otherwise someone gets to fetch an oil catch container and the appropriate tools.

      We won’t mention how one Jeep starts a large airplane (Jeep, rope, engine, some assembly required).

  5. Of course you have all that complexity in a ‘basic’ airplane engine, but then you turn around and someone is running one with a dang 2-stroke snowmobile motor. So you CAN go real simple and still get something that flies.

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