Engines of Change- Niels the Builder-Banner

Copenhagen, August, 1636

Niels Isaksen was young and ambitious. He had been working for Halmsted Construction for several years, but now saw an opportunity to advance himself. It was risky, but a young man wanting to build his life and impress the father of the beautiful Sarah Brinker must take risks. So his arrogance lead into folly, and he accepted the job with visions of Sarah.

Today, he stood in the company courtyard. In his hand was a building proposal to commence the repair of the South Tower of the building on the corner of Canal and Palace Boulevards. The packet had already been all over the city, and all of them said it was too difficult or impossible. The amount of money offered for its completion kept rising. But difficult didn’t bother Niels; he saw it as a great opportunity. It was an extraordinary task. Niels was confident that this job was within his capabilities. It would be Niels’ first contract as a captain within the construction company.

Niels gestured to his assistant, Björn, who stood by his side. “We must go see this job.” They stepped out into the confusion of morning traffic.

For a nation’s capital, Copenhagen was wonderfully compact, one could get from one place to another with little problem, in spite of the large number of people living there. So it was not long before Niels and Björn were standing across the street from the south tower of the building in question. To Niels, it was obvious that the tower needed work. On the outside, plaster was broken, with some pieces lying on the ground before them. Some of the masonry and brickwork involved were simply atrocious. Niels dodged an ox cart and headed inside to continue inspection. And the inside was worse. Several beams were visibly deficient, some rotted, some just cracked. Björn caught up to him and looked at the inside of the crumbling tower with dismay. “Master, are you sure about this? The tower has been delicate for a hundred years and was made much worse last month when that wedding processional got out of control, and started a riot. I think they should just tear it down and start over.”

Niels laughed and pulled out the measuring cord. But as they paced and measured, Niels began to get a sinking feeling. He could now see why all the other contractors had refused this job. The tower was smallish, and any scaffold or apparatus would have to be outside. And the street was already crowded.

“Björn, we might have a problem. This job will need the crane, the big one, to get our materials up on the roof above the third floor. I think we can fit the crane in here, but do you think we can get the walking drum in?”

Björn looked a little frightened. He was only twelve, young for an apprentice. “Master, I don’t know if it will fit.”

EoC-NtB-trdmllThe walking drum was a cage treadmill, large enough for two or three men. It was mounted on an axle, and used to power the winch that lifted things up and down. It required a good fifteen feet of extra area over and beyond the size of the crane itself.

Niels nodded, and looked up at the apex of the tower. “I think the crane will fit quite nicely; however, I don’t see any way we could get the walking drum anywhere near the crane. Perhaps if we use a link chain and gear, we might make it work, but we’ll have to do something. I’ve already signed the paperwork, and the penalties for not finishing it are severe.”

The measurements took the rest of the morning. Niels would shout out a number, and Björn would scrawl it on foolscap.

Finally, from the top of a ladder, Niels shouted, “Björn, I think it’s time for lunch. Let’s head back to the work yard. I need to measure our equipment again. Maybe we can find a way to reduce the needed space for all of it.”


Back at the yard Niels sent messengers to every craftsman and laborer who had worked with him in the past. They were reliable men all, and many were between jobs as the last project was completed. He knew they would be glad to have a job with him again.

The notice stated that the job was to start in three days and that assembly of the crane and pre-positioning of the working materials would begin at that time. Niels returned to his desk, working on calculations of materials and manpower for the time allotted.

It was some time before Björn returned. “Master, all the messages have been delivered.”

Niels looked up and realized he had been working for a couple of hours. “Good job. Now, come over here and look at this. I want your professional opinion, as if you were a journeyman. This is a scale drawing of the street and the building. Here is the layout of the crane and linkage. I’m still not quite sure how to fit in the treadmill, but I’m sure the crane will fit here. What do you think?”

Björn examined the setup carefully. “I think you’re right. I’m not sure about the treadmill, either, but I’m sure we can make it work.”

Niels smiled. “Very well, make sure all the equipment for the crane is inspected, that we have enough barrels and chests to contain the construction materials, and that all the workers take their tools this time. Everyone will be watching, and we don’t want to look like fools, especially in that part of town. I want us to get more work there in the future, and a good job will do that for us.”

Before Björn could answer, another man stopped at the desk. It was old Ollie Halmsted, who had been Niels’ master. The old man was now retired, but couldn’t stay away from the shop. He grinned. “Stop worrying, you will do it. We always have succeeded before. You will now. We might even try some of those ideas in those pamphlets they’ve been putting out from those people in Germany. They have a few good ideas, things I would never have thought of. I wonder that we’ve never thought of them before, they seem so obvious. Just the new jack will make our work much simpler. It certainly is better than trying to attach a spike into a building frame.”


            Niels was pleased the assembly of the crane had gone flawlessly. It was in place so that the upper beam could reach any place on the building. All the cordage and materials were sound.

But the treadmill continued to be a problem. Yes, the cage was up, but it was not very close, and the long chain and cogwheels were only marginally useful. Every ten minutes or so, the chain would pop off the gear, and everything would come to a sudden halt. At least the load on the crane no longer came crashing down. The ratchet gear that they had installed was serving its function well. You could click up or you could click down.

Nevertheless, lifting and lowering was slower than it had ever been before. Niels was concerned that they would not make their completion time as specified in the contract. All of this was swirling in Niels’ head as he walked from the office to the worksite.

When he arrived, he was gratified to see Björn wave and jump down off the crane. “Well, Björn, how is the job going? Are we on schedule?”

Björn’s smile faded. “No, Master, As a matter of fact we are losing a little time every day. The arrangement with the treadmill is just too clumsy. We can compensate by working longer days, but the workmen want more pay for that. We need something better.”

Niels replied, “The contract only stretches so far. Longer hours won’t make up for all the time loss we’ve experienced.”


            The sun was almost down. The workmen had packed their tools, and the site was secured for the evening. The night watchman, who was to look after the equipment that had to be left in place, arrived and walked around the site, inspecting it with Niels and Björn. Everything was in place, but by now, they were two weeks behind schedule. There didn’t appear to be a good solution, and Halmsted Construction would have to pay the penalties. Niels would probably lose his position.

As he and Björn left, Niels said, “Let’s take the Harbor Road tonight. I need to walk. Maybe it will help me to think.”

Björn said, “Of course, Master. An evening stroll often helps resolve difficulties.”

The two walked along the Harbor Road until they noticed a commotion ahead. Niels had not been down this way in years. “What is all that about?”

EoC-NtB-bsctsgrvBjörn laughed. “Oh, that must be the Mermaid and Tiger. It gets crowded every night. They say it is owned in part by an up-timer out of Germany. I think her name is Frau Pridmore, and it is said that she has food and drink unlike anything that anyone else has ever experienced. As a matter of fact she makes something called gravy, not the bread crumb and meat sauce gravy that we know, but something smoother. My friend told me about it. He says that this gravy made by Frau Pridmore is unlike anything he’s ever seen and has a delightful flavor.”

Niels was surprised to see Björn get so excited about food. He had never seen the boy this excited about anything. “All right, let’s go in and see what they have. Perhaps a distraction is what we need.”

As the two men walked up to the door, the place seemed crowded but happy. Many people apparently were having a delightful time. There were a few people seated here and there that seemed deep in thought, almost always holding a mug of something. And there was a delightful odor emanating from the shop. Niels and Björn walked through the door. As he was looking for a table, he asked, “So, you’ve been here before?”

Björn blushed. “No, Master. I can’t afford it. But I heard other apprentices talking about it, and I have always wanted to come.”


            Niels and Björn entered the tavern and made their way through the crowd until they found a small table with two chairs along the wall. Niels said, “I don’t know when I’ve seen a tavern quite this crowded, not even on festival days.”

Björn said, “I know, that’s what makes it fun.”

A young lady came to their table. “Welcome to the Mermaid and Tiger. What can I get for you gentlemen?”

Niels said, “What do you have? I see a list written on the wall behind the counter. Is that the menu?”

The young lady replied, “Well, yes. That list on the wall is what we have every day. But we also have specials, and every once in a while we have something truly unique and unusual. Frau Pridmore says that they are just ordinary things to her, but I and the other serving staff had never heard of some of these things before. Do you want to hear our specials?”

Niels peered intently at the wall behind the counter, then said, “I think we should keep it simple for our first visit. I want to try biscuits and gravy. I think I will have lager beer—that is something I understand well. The young man will have the same.”

The girl nodded and left. And Niels leaned back in his chair. “I worked for a short time as a sailor, and we had biscuits on board. I’m not so sure I want to encounter biscuits again but gravy sounds interesting.”

The chairs of the two men were against the wall. Taking advantage of this, both men leaned back on the wall and watched the room. Björn said, “I have never been in a place like this. If you look, you can see all the classes of society here in Copenhagen. Look over in the corner—those are workmen from the Danish Airship Company. Over on that wall I can see people from a machine shop down by the waterfront, and there are the three Erics. They always tell you Eric is in charge they just won’t tell you which one.”

Niels laughed. “They sound like my cousins. They all look alike and won’t ever admit which one is really in charge, either.”

The girl returned with two foaming tankards. Niels picked his up and took a drink. “It’s cool, almost cold. That sure does taste good after a long hot day.”

Björn nodded his agreement. He was watching the crowd because it seemed to grow every moment. The airship company men were doing something, but Björn couldn’t quite tell what, so he stood on his chair to see over everyone’s heads.

Niels said, “What you think they’re doing, Björn? It looks like they’re setting something up.”

Björn said, “Oh it looks like machinery. Nobody else brings their work with them, but my friends say that the airship men are always up to something, demonstrating a new joint or some new type of mechanism. Sometimes it can get exciting.”

Niels stood on his chair as well, since he was on the short side for a Dane. The crowd in the corner were laughing and joking, then someone started shouting. Shortly thereafter, everyone heard a loud hum.

And then Niels felt his hair move, as if in a light breeze. Something about the hum was moving the air in the tavern. He was about to go over and investigate, but that was when the young lady returned with two platters. She set them down and said, “Here’s your biscuits and gravy. Enjoy, gentlemen.”

The food won out over the clamor on the other side of the tavern. So he and Björn applied themselves to their platters. Niels was amazed. First of all, these were nothing like the biscuits he had encountered aboard ship. Those were hard and grey, only appetizing when there was nothing else. These were light and airy, like something you would find on the king’s table.

And the gravy was an experience all on its own. It was delicious but it was different. Until now, anything like gravy had been thin, just meat juice with some breadcrumbs to thicken. This was smooth and thick. It had small bits of meat in it that were chewy and spicy, and the gravy seemed heavy with cream.

At length, with their meal completed, Niels and Björn were again attracted to the activity in the corner. The airship company men were packing up their machinery. Niels said, “Why don’t we go over and see what was going on? The crowd seems to have thinned out, so we can get in there without being jostled by everybody in the tavern.”

Björn stood up and followed Niels over to the corner. Several people were talking to the airship company men. When one left, Niels stepped up to the man from the airship company. “I am Niels Isaksen, with Halmsted Construction. What was this machinery all about?”

The man shook Niels’ hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jens Dalgaard. And some of this crowd was watching me. I think I just sold an engine.”

Niels frowned, “An engine? Why would anybody want something quite that small?”

Jens turned and they watched the small device as it was taken apart and packed into a crate. “Oh, it wouldn’t be that small. This is a working model, we built it to prove the concept before we went on with the full-sized ones. This is the type of engine that powers the Royal Anne airship. The one I sold will be bigger. I think they want to power a tugboat in the harbor with it. At least they had a lot of questions about how to hook it up to a rotating wheel.”

That comment caught Niels attention. He began to get excited. “It can be attached to a rotating wheel? How big is this one you are going to build for the tugboat?”

Jens said, “Why don’t you come to my office, down at the hangar on the airship field? Ask for me, Jens Dalgaard. I’m the shop foreman, and I can answer your questions better than anyone else. See you tomorrow.”

Niels said, “I would be glad to meet you. This may solve a problem that I haven’t been able to come at any other way.”


            The next morning, Niels left a foreman at the worksite and walked out to the airship landing field. The hangar was busy; people were working on the airship that had just returned from India. Everybody was involved in something.

Niels finally caught the attention of somebody who looked like a supervisor and asked for Jens Dalgaard. He was led to a work area. “Herr Dalgaard, we spoke last night at the tavern.”

Jens said, “Yes, I remember. I am glad to see you today. What can we do for you?”

Niels pointed to the busy men all around him. “I had thought that you had finished all the engines for the airship. But here you look like you’re working very hard. What’s going on?”

Jens laughed. “Surprisingly, we have received orders for new engines from various different organizations. So, far from closing down, it’s beginning to look like we’ll need to expand our operation. Why don’t you have a seat, and we can discuss just what your problem is, and what I might be able to do for you.”

By lunchtime, Niels had the promise of an engine that would meet his needs and be available in a surprisingly short amount of time. It would be expensive, but it would simplify his operation a great deal. The biggest technical challenge was making sure that the engine could run the crane both forward and in reverse. It would not be very helpful to have a crane that could lift up but not lower down.


            Niels did everything he could at the worksite, but over the next week, the work crew fell a little further behind every day. He had to have Björn and another apprentice monitor the linkage to the walking cage and hook it up every time it fell off.

He had used his own funds and ordered an engine to fit his problem, but was told it would take a couple of weeks to get it. So he kept the crews working until they could do something else.

Luckily, the engine arrived the next day. The setup would mean more time lost, but by now, Niels was so far behind that a half-day wouldn’t make any difference.

His work crew stood around as the engine technicians analyzed the layout, then began the installation of the mechanism. Some, especially the ones that walked the wheel, were grumbling, worried about losing their job to a machine. But it was all too interesting not to watch.

The mechanic was familiar to Niels. Eric had been out to visit, take measurements, and reassure Niels that it would work. Finally, Eric stood up and wiped his face with a kerchief. “All right, Matts. Light a fire in the steam maker. Let’s see it work.”

EoC-NtB-stmwhstl2As the fire was lit a shout went up from the work crew. Shortly, they all laughed as a brass bell-shaped device on the side of the steam producer let out a high-pitched scream.

Niels was visibly nervous, but Eric waved and said, “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that. I know it can be annoying, but the whistle lets everyone know to be careful. A steam engine is nothing to be casual about. A malfunction could have bad consequences.”

It took a little more time to help the crane operator familiarize himself with the controls. “This is your control lever. If you push it forward it causes the crane to pull the cable up. If you pull up the middle the cable will be locked in place, and if you pull it towards you the crane will lower. The more you push the lever, the faster the crane will run, either up or down. Be careful because in full reverse the crane drops very quickly—you don’t want to crush anybody.”

The crane operator nodded. “Thank you. I have seen accidents before, and we do not need to cause one.”

Eric returned to the sidelines, so Niels stepped into the middle of the clearing. “I want to do a test load. I think our crane operator needs to practice before we load it up, and everyone wants to see how it works.”

A large cart loaded with barrels and supplies, tools and lumber, was rolled into place. Carefully the work crew attached it to the crane. Then Niels said, “Everybody stand back.”

The area cleared, then Niels nodded. “All right, lift it up. Be careful. Let’s do this safely.”

The crowd held its breath as the crane operator pushed the lever forward. Everyone could hear the strange grumble of the engine, but the cable on the crane began to pull the hook up, then with a small jerk, the load was smoothly lifted into the air.

The crane operator just concentrated on the load. When it reached the level he wanted, he pulled the lever back, and the load stopped. The load was a little bit too low, so little by little, he worked it into position, and the workmen on the scaffolding began to unload the cargo. Once the cart was empty it was lowered to the ground.

The whole operation took less than twenty minutes. Everybody was astonished because just this morning, it had taken more than an hour, and there was no gang of men grunting and straining inside the treadmill to make it go up.

Niels grinned and shook Eric’s hand. “It looks like you brought me a miracle.” Then he stepped to the edge of the open space and shouted. “What are you looking at? Get to work. If I have to pay a late fee, I’m taking it out of your pay.”

With a cheer, the men hurried back to work. Niels sent Björn to gather the men who had been in the walking cage and add them to the loading crews on the carts.

Then Niels sat down at his desk and gestured for Eric to do the same. “This changes everything. I’ve never seen so much work done in so small a space. Whoever thought that a flying machine could do so much work on the ground?”