Aksel Nørgaard walked into the shop like always. Just watching the machinery made him feel good. The overhead mainline shaft clattered away as it rotated, belts came down from pulleys to each machine tool, small wisps of smoke curled up from each machine. Everywhere, workers practiced their craft.
Aksel, satisfied that the shop floor was functioning, walked to his drawing table in the back corner of the shop. There, he found his accountant, Martin, busy going through the books. “So how does it look?”
Martin shrugged. “Well, there’s good news and bad. All the machines we have are working, with contracts waiting in line. The bad news is the machines are not working fast enough.”
Aksel sat down on a bench near Martin. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what we have here in this shop is marvelous. Never before have we been able to work metal this quickly. Always it has been slower, and without the ability to do exactly the same job every time. Each item we made was slightly different from one time to the next. Now it is better, but I think we may have been too ambitious. The work we contracted for is not being done fast enough. As a matter of fact, none of the machines are really working to their full capacity. They can do more.”
Aksel stood up to pace. “The only way we can make everything go faster is to turn the main shaft faster.” He pointed to the other corner of the shop where a large circular cage was mounted on an axle. Inside the cage, a large pig was walking inside the rim of the cage. This morning, the pig was fresh and the cage was turning fairly quickly; but Aksel knew that as the day went on, the pig would go slower and slower. Aksel said, “I thought we dealt with this last week. Didn’t we get a second pig to spell this one?”
“Yes, we bought a second pig. But even switching them every two hours does not give us enough power. We have to do something or we are going to end up paying penalties on our contracts. The businessmen don’t care what our problems are. They just want their orders on time. Faster than on time would be better. Then we would earn a bonus.”
“I see. Let me think about it. I have the beginnings of a few ideas. We might have several things we can still try,” Aksel said.
Martin turned back to his notes on the books. “Now about the expenses. We need to cut somewhere to make sure we squeeze out a profit.”
“How are we doing with tools? Are the cutting bits wearing out fast? Do we need to order more steel bits?”
Martin nodded. “At these slower speeds, the tools don’t wear as quickly. Some things we are doing couldn’t be done any faster than now, but I would still like more power on the jack shaft. It would make everything easier.”
The next morning, Aksel arrived early so he could look over the shop before the workmen arrived. He examined the belts and pulleys first. By the time he was done, men began arriving, and starting on the projects they had been on the day before.
For the rest of the day, Aksel went from station to station, making sure everything was efficient. One by one, he would have individuals stop work, while they changed out the overhead pulleys on that section of the overhead shaft.
Martin came in around ten. He saw men standing around as Aksel worked above their station on the jack shaft. “Aksel, what are you doing? I told you yesterday that we needed more speed, and now you have the shop running slower, with men standing around.”
Aksel didn’t stop working. From the ladder he stood on, he explained, “I think we have too many shafts connected overhead by belts to each other. Every time we transfer power from one shaft to a parallel shaft by overhead belt, we lose a little bit of effort. If we can change the locations of the machines, maybe we can shorten the length of our belts and have more strength in our tools.”
Martin folded his arms, and fiddled with the braid on the front of his doublet. “All right, I can see what you’re saying. Is today the best time to try this?”
Aksel pulled a screwdriver from his belt and continued working. “That’s just the first thing, Martin. The second thing I have planned is to put another treadmill on the other side of the shop. That way each overhead shaft will have its own wheel.”
Martin shook his head. “That may help, but our machines can still handle much more power, more than we’re able to give them. We have got to find something to make them work harder. What about bigger wheels, or put men inside the tread mills instead of pigs. With men, when you tell them to run, they will.”
It took about a week to complete the modifications. Today, Aksel stepped into the shop, and felt that burst of pride he always felt to see all the machines working. He was grinning when he walked up to Martin. “What do you think? Has our outlook improved?”
“There has been some improvement to our work output, and the orders have been coming out of the shop slightly faster, ” Martin said. “But I still don’t think it’s quite fast enough to give us a comfort margin. We have got to find a way of getting more power. These new up-time machine tools work very well, but I think we need to concentrate more power into the tools or we will never reach our full capacity as a shop. If we can’t work at full capacity, somebody else will take the work from us.”
Martin was interrupted by a loud screech. All around the shop, machines jerked to a halt, and men began shouting.
Then the loud screaming metal makes when it is torn in half drowned out the shouting. Right next to the treadmill cage, a man lay on the ground, spurting blood, and the cage lurched and began to lift toward the ceiling. The pig was squealing almost as loud as the catastrophic noise.
Then the shaft ripped the cage completely off of its bearings. The disaster wasn’t over. Now that it was free, the jack shaft, with stored power, ripped loose from the ceiling and plummeted down to the floor.
Men and boys dived to each side as bolts, shrapnel, and splinters of wood rained from the ceiling. The silence was sudden, and overwhelming, for a moment, until someone groaned, and broke the spell.
The dust was thick in the air. Aksel choked, then said, “Martin, see who has been hurt. I will begin to assess the damage.”
Ten minutes later, they met at Aksel’s drawing table. By now, the street in front of the shop was jammed with people trying to see what had happened.
Martin shook his head. “Well, I think we got lucky. Nobody was killed, except the pig. But we are going to need two more journeymen. Jens has a broken arm, broken leg, and a knock on the head. And old Søren was cut up pretty bad. They have carried him out to a doctor. What did you find out about the jack shaft?”
Aksel sat heavily on his stool, cleaning his hands with a dusty old rag. “Martin, it is a miracle. None of the machines are broken, except for the treadmill cage. But jack shaft number one is ripped completely from the ceiling, and all the machines on that side of the shop are out of operation until we can get shaft power to them. How bad is the pig? Is there enough to roast for a feast? We may need it for the going out of business party.”
That made Martin laugh. “Well, I don’t know if we are going out of business quite yet. How long to make repairs, and get back to work?”
Aksel grinned. “What if I tell you two weeks? Are we still in business?”
Martin’s mouth fell open. “Two weeks? We have bills due for raw stock, and four different projects scheduled to deliver before then. I guess we’ll still be in business, but not by much.”
“I never like to give you a firm time, you know, ” Aksel said. “But I think we won’t be shut down longer than two days. Less, if I get started right away.”
Martin pulled a kerchief from his sleeve and mopped his brow. “Don’t scare me like that, Aksel. Grandfather always told you not to lie to me.”
Aksel clapped his hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Sorry, cousin. Send the men home for the day, and I will get started. All except Eric. He can help me with the refit. He is tall, and I need tall today.”
Martin stood up, and started shouting at the people milling through the damage.
Aksel plucked on his sleeve. “Oh, and we need a new treadmill cage. Send someone to find the other pig. He ran out in the middle of all the confusion, and we don’t need to buy two when one will do.”
By sundown, Aksel and Martin were glad to get out of the shop. The wounded were removed, and the dust and debris were cleaned up. The escaped pig was in his pen in the alley at the back. Except for the hole in the ceiling, one could not tell there had been an accident.
Their shop sat near the waterfront, both because the land at the time they bought it was cheap, and because it was close to supplies coming in by boat. There was even talk of a railroad someday coming down to the docks, so they could get supplies from land or sea, and ship out finished work.
Martin pointed. “Let’s go this way home, I want to show you that shop I saw the other day. It’s a new place. There it is, The Mermaid and Tiger.”
Aksel said, “Looks interesting. Do they serve food?”
“I think so. It just opened, some time last week. Let’s go inside and sit for a while. I want to try the new American chocolate. A friend of mine said it is so spicy it can make your eyes water. I didn’t believe him, but I want to try it anyway.”
“All right, I need something exciting after the humdrum day we’ve had. Isn’t this the place where they had that murder?”
Martin frowned at his cousin, but saw it was just another quirk of Aksel’s sense of humor. As the two entered the establishment, they could see that it was one large open room, tables with wooden chairs filled most of the floor. At the back was a counter dividing the working spaces of the tavern from the public room. There probably were more helpers in back setting up for the day.
Martin pointed to a back corner. “My wife said that was where they found the body.”
Aksel laughed. “Let’s not sit there, then. I used up one of my lives this morning, I don’t want to risk another.”
It was early, in the evening, so the afternoon crowd was gone, and the dock workers had not yet gathered.
Aksel said, “Well, Martin, it looks like we can have any table we want. Let’s sit in that corner away from the window. It’s close to the counter, so if we want refills we can get them fast.”
As Aksel set his course for the indicated table, Martin chuckled. “I guess everything’s back to normal. My cousin Aksel is always looking for the advantage.”
As they sat down, a young girl walked to their table. “May I get you something to drink?” Aksel said, “We have heard all the talk. So we came to try chocolate. Everybody in town is talking about chocolate. I hear it is amazing. I especially want to see if it really does make you think faster.”
The young lady said, “What kind of chocolate? We have several types. We have chocolate like the natives from the New World drink it. That one has lots of spices. We have chocolate like the French drink it, which is very sweet. The Spanish make it with milk and some spices, but not as much spice as the New World. The Dutch drink it with no milk, and less sugar. We even have chocolate like the Danes drink it.”
Martin asked, “How do the Danes drink it?”
The girl smiled. “That’s my favorite one. It is sweet, has milk and nutmeg, and comes with flat bread and herring.”
Aksel said, “I want to try the Dutch chocolate, and I think my cousin will have it like the Danes. And bring us some bread and butter as well.”
She glanced at Martin, who nodded. She left, and Martin laughed. “I am glad that you can order for me when I can’t make up my mind.”
Aksel smiled. “That’s why I’m in charge.”
The girl brought a plate, and their cups. Martin picked up a piece of the flat bread. “Aksel, I see you are here to talk politics again are we? And which side of the flat bread will you put your butter on today?” It was an old joke, because of the shape of the flatbread. One side had indentations, and the other was truly flat. It was said that those who put butter on the holey side were wasteful, while those who spread it on the flat side were miserly.
“I’ll have none of that,” Aksel said. “I put the butter on the side that tastes best, and that depends on my mood at the moment.”
With a wicked grin Martin said, “What if I put the butter on the edges what does that mean?”
Aksel laughed, but before he could answer the young lady returned and set two mugs of steaming beverage on the table. “This will get you started. I’ll be right back with the rest of it.” Aksel and Martin sniffed the chocolate. Martin’s was mild and pleasant, while Aksel’s had a dark aroma, fresh and spicy, something they’d never smelled before, but combined with several familiar vapors coming from spices that were used in everyday cooking.
They looked at each other, then sipped the chocolate. Aksel opened his eyes wide, then closed them to concentrate on the experience. It was unique, and he felt as if his heart was light, and the air in the tavern, becoming more crowded by the minute, was the first breath of spring.
When he opened his eyes, he saw Martin also had his eyes closed. “Martin, what do you think?”
“I like it. I can taste it all across my tongue. It is better than the tea I tasted last month, or the coffee that occasionally comes up from the Ottoman Empire. I think I like it, perhaps I like it a lot.”
Aksel said, “Mine is interesting, bitter and strong.”
The young lady returned with a platter of cheese, flat bread, butter, and smoked herring. They felt relaxed for the first time since the chaos at the shop.
“Martin, you are brilliant. That’s why I keep you around,” Aksel said.
Martin sipped some chocolate. “What do you mean?”
Aksel gestured to the shop. “Bringing us here today. We needed to relax, and decide what to do next. I worry about the shop. We have contracts to fulfill and it seems like we are running out of time.”
Martin said, “I have an idea. Perhaps we should talk to the shop manager over at the Danish Airship Company. They have a machine shop like ours, but they are turning out a lot more work. We are even making parts for them, because they have too much work. They must have some kind of secret. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to them. Maybe they can give us an idea of what we can do to increase our work production.”
That was when a group of men from the Danish Airship Company came through the door.
Aksel said, “How convenient. I think that is the crew of the engine shop right there. Let’s invite them over to our table.”
The two men watched the activities of the men from the DAC. As the owners of a machine shop themselves, they were greatly interested as a chest was set down on the floor and various pieces of equipment were lifted out. One was installed in the window, another was attached to the table.
Aksel stood up to watch. Martin said, “Can you tell what they are doing?”
Aksel shrugged. “Not completely, but I recognize that propeller. When Jens Dalgaard gave me a tour of the factory last month, he mentioned that it is used for pushing air or pulling air or something. I think they are setting up a steam engine, like the ones they put on the Royal Anne.” Martin said, “I think you’re right. But it seems so very small. That can’t be the engine that flew on the Anne.”
“It is smaller than the ones I saw. Maybe it is a working model. Let’s watch. I want to see what happens.”
As the assembly of the device continued, more and more people crowded around the table. Almost everybody’s attention was riveted on the machinery. Aksel and Martin watched. The DAC men added water to a little tank, and a fire was built in the small circular device set in the windowsill. When smoke came out the chimney, it was not too long before they heard hissing from the tank.
Then the senior machinist—Aksel remembered him as Matt, the one from America—shouted, “Hold my chocolate! Watch this!” Then he twisted a lever and stood back as the propeller began to spin.
Aksel grabbed Martin’s sleeve. “Look at that. It moves on its own. Nobody’s pulling or pushing it, or making it move. It moves on its own.”
As the two men watched, various things happened. Smoke from the pipe smokers in the room was pulled out to the small window by the machine. And fresh air was coming in. Through the propeller of the device, air was being pushed out the window.
Somebody tried to touch it and many laughed when he stuck his sore finger in his mouth.
Aksel said, “There seems to be a great deal of strength for such a small device. It would probably be expensive to put a machine like that on every single one of our tools in the shop, though.”
Martin said, “What if we got one to replace the pig cage, even both the pig cages if we could get one big enough?”
That was enough for Aksel. He cornered his friend, Jens Dalgaard, and they talked shop for the rest of the evening. Many other people were wanting to talk to Jens, or Matt, or anyone who would talk about the new engine.
As they walked home, Martin said, “I don’t think they knew it, but they were selling engines tonight. We just have to figure out if we can afford the machine. Aksel, do you think you could actually learn to run something like that? And we would have to consider fuel for it.”
Aksel laughed. “Of course I can run it. Jens and I were apprentices to the same blacksmith when we were young, and if he can do it, so can I. We will keep the shop closed tomorrow, and go talk finance in the morning. You wear your best black doublet, and I will do the same.”
Martin shook his head. “Not our best. Last year’s doublets will do. We want to appear educated and capable, but not so much that they will overcharge us. We don’t want to give them an inflated idea of our cash flow.”
Aksel and Martin were at the Danish Airship Company’s facilities at the first light of dawn. They had delivered parts there before, knew where the shop for the engine works was, and they just went to the shop. When they arrived, Jens greeted them warmly. “I heard about your accident yesterday. Is there anything we can do?”
Aksel shook his head. “We were just lucky nobody was killed. It’s so hard to hire workers after that. I guess I was pushing my jack shaft too hard, trying to get more power.”
After they were seated in Jens’ office, Martin took the conversation. “We saw your demonstration last night, at the Mermaid and Tiger. So we are here today. We need something to replace the pig cages. The truth is that the smell was becoming overwhelming. Do you think one, or maybe two, of your engines would do the trick? If it is prohibitively expensive, we will be limited to only one, but we are already set up for two.”
Jens Dalgaard said, “Yes, I can understand that a thousand horsepower would be far and away too much power to run your overhead shaft assembly. But let me show you this.” He pulled out a blueprint, and laid it out on the desk. “Our engines are built by bolting cylinder assemblies onto a beam of wood, and we add as many as we need to create the power desired. It requires us to make a custom crankshaft for each engine, but that is not too great a problem as all of those parts are also made the same for each cylinder.”
Aksel stood up and poured all his attention on the drawings. “Jens, this is ingenious. How did you ever come up with this?”
Jens blushed slightly. “It wasn’t my idea. Most of this came from our American consultant, Marlon Pridmore. We were all astonished that something this straightforward can do such miracles.”
“That looks like it is exactly what we want. When can we expect delivery?” Martin asked.
Jens sat down, and the negotiations began. He said, “Unfortunately we have several contracts already and must put them first before we can make another engine.”
Aksel started to talk, but Martin stopped him. “That’s too bad because we need to get back into operation as quickly as possible. We have orders to fill, even orders for you. I guess we will just repair the pig cage, and continue on as we have been. We can’t afford to wait for a long time.” Jens looked grim. Aksel could see he was thinking. Then they noticed Matt Lawler had been standing and listening. “Jens, what if we sold them the prototype, the proof of concept engine that we were playing with last night.”
“You’re the American, right? What engine is this?” Aksel asked.
Jens stood up. “Matt, haven’t you got work to do?”
Aksel stood up as well. “Jens, now wait. If he has an idea, I need to hear it. If we stay closed too long, we may as well quit right now.”
Jens sighed and sat back down. “Well, we built a small engine, to test the design. It was only six cylinders, before we spent the money on large engines. It works, but we set it aside and built bigger engines.”
Aksel asked, “And how powerful is this prototype?”
Jens flapped his hand. “Well, it depends. The engines we make are powered by steam. The work you get from the engine is directly related to how much steam pressure you put into the engine. At high pressures, the prototype engine can deliver as much as fifty horsepower. However I would recommend a lower pressure and setting the device to deliver about twenty horsepower to your jack shaft. That should power everything you have, comfortably, even while they’re all running together.”
Martin was getting excited, and jumped to his feet. “Can we see it? The engine I mean.”
“Certainly, gentlemen. Matt, why don’t you roll the engine out here.”
They walked out into the workshop, and Jens was speaking as they went. “We have it mounted on wheels so that we can move it around and show it to people. Here it is now.”
The engine was about five feet long, five feet wide, and reached a height of six feet above the cart it was mounted on. Jens said, “As you can see, it has an output shaft on each end. The shaft is only about an inch and a half thick, and for that reason I would recommend running it at lower horsepower, so that the torque from the engine does not twist the shaft off.”
Aksel had stepped up on the cart, and was almost fondling it. Martin watched his cousin, sighed, and turned back to Jens. “So how much will it cost us?”
Before the end of the week, the engine had been installed, the belt and pulley were set, and the steam tank attached. The engineer from the DAC had spent all morning talking about safety measures, and Aksel was bored.
When he finally left, everybody in the shop clustered around the new engine. It was painted a very important blue and had gold leaf curlicues highlighting the edges. It was the most beautiful fixture on the block, and everyone in the neighborhood came to admire it.
Aksel said, “Stand back, I’m going to start it up.” And quietly, aside to Martin, he said, “This better work.”
At Aksel’s signal, Martin lit a fire in the generator, and shortly thereafter opened a valve on the engine. The generator was also a very professional blue with decorations, but on the face of it were two cherubs holding a torch. Martin said, “This generator is a fine thing, it makes steam in a couple of minutes. A full boiler can take as many as three hours to have useful steam.”
As they spoke the engine began to turn over, the pulley on the jack shaft was spinning with little or no vibration.
Aksel’s voice was reverent. “Eric, engage the belt. This will tell us if it works as well as Jens claims.”
Eric, standing by the first lathe in the row of machine tools, pulled his lever, and the lathe powered up. The other machinists, seeing Eric, pulled their levers as well, and with that, the whole shop was running.
A cheer went up in the street. Aksel beamed like a new father, and pulled out his pipe.
Martin came over to shake his hand. “Well, cousin, what do you think? Will this company be successful?”
Martin was mystified. “The movie house? Over there by that American’s house, Herr Pridmore?”
Aksel smiled. “For her birthday, I took my wife there last week. It was pleasant. The room is dark, and they show moving pictures on a big sheet in the front of the theater. And they serve tasty snacks in the lobby. We went to see an amusing comedy from America, called Tool Time.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
Aksel shrugged. “Not particularly, but my wife is happy. It seems to be some undecipherable mix-up about a man who sells tools, and his family and neighbors. It had almost no music, and even that was no good. I don’t think I would like to see more of it. But one thing caught my attention.”
Martin said, “What was that?”
Aksel said, “The tool company. They had many very useful looking tools. And this tool man said that their tools had more power, just like we do now, run by steam. I want to be remembered for good quality tools. So I think we should rename our company. To be remembered as a quality place.”
Martin started getting excited. “Yes, we could build quality tools for people all over Europe. What are we going to call our establishment?”
Aksel put his hand on the rail of his new blue engine. “This is what I call more power. We will become the Bjorn-Ford tool and die company.”