Knife Switches, Patent Stamps, and Cats – Celebrating the New Year with Pratt’s Steam-Power

Maker News
Knife Switches, Patent Stamps, and Cats – Celebrating the New Year with Pratt’s Steam-Power

Update: NYC’s NY1 has confirmed that tonight, Dec 31, 2014, will be the last time the steam whistles will be presented on New Year’s Eve to ring in the new year.

Warning: Potentially loud noises ahead. Turn your speakers down if you plan on watching the videos below.

Early testing on the calliope.
Testing the calliope before the crowds show up.

Prior to the recent change of the calendar, I had celebrated eight New Years in NYC. Two of those eight were on the Brooklyn Campus of Pratt Institute to hear a collection of steam whistles toot in the new year. Those were already pretty good odds, but I’ve now celebrated with steam three of nine New Years in NYC. They’re each special in their own right, filled with fond memories. And this most recent one may wind up being very special indeed, if it turns out to be the last time the steam whistles are operated at Pratt.

Begun in 1965 by chief engineer Conrad Milster, the event originally served as a way to justify wanting to hear the steam-powered whistles he collected. Now 77 and having organized the event on his own for nearly five decades, this time last week gossip begin to swirl that this would be Conrad’s final event. There were rumors that Conrad simply wanted to do something else, to relax and enjoy his own new year celebrations. Completely understandable. Then there were also rumors that the administration at Pratt was shutting down the event over liability concerns. And of course there were reports of both of those things being the case.

Weston Voltmeter

With the uncertainty of Dec. 31, 2014, I knew this event was not to be missed. And with everyone from WNYC to Flavorpill saying this was the place to be at the stroke of midnight, I knew it was going to be packed. I made the trip ahead of the crowds in the hopes of getting up close to some of the equipment used. I got more than even I expected with a self-guided tour of the floor of the Engine Room in the East Building!

The view of the Engine Room from the mezzanine.
The view of the Engine Room from the mezzanine.

Whether one hung out on the mezzanine overlooking the generators or got up close to the equipment, there is a lot of beauty in this place. Down to the brass fixtures, copper connections, and patent stamps labeled “88,” “89,” “90” because you have to remember this facility was built at the end of the 19th century! Oh and cats. Lots of cats. Cats everywhere. Running around the campus, hugging warmth from generators, hanging out on top of pipes. The “Pratt Cats” are equally as famous as Conrad and the steam whistles! Check out the slideshow to see more and if you have a story or info on a specific component or machine, leave a comment below.

Next is a video of the generator in motion. As the evening went on they had to speed up the generator to provide additional steam, to the point where the flywheel was spinning at around 2000-3000 rpm or more!

Several hundred people rung in the new year first with the Conrad’s homemade calliope and then with a selection of whistles from fellow steam aficionados:

And finally here’s a video of Conrad’s 3-bell multi-tone whistle in the daytime to give you an idea of how intense these whistles are:

YouTube player

Update: Late last night my friend and music-maker Norman Savitt uploaded some wonderful ‘behind-the-scenes’ type photos of the steam whistles installation. Big thanks to Norman for use of his photos, and an extra-warm thank you to Conrad and his team for coordinating this unique labor-of-love event.

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I'm an artist & maker. A lifelong biblioholic, and advocate for all-things geekathon. Home is Long Island City, Queens, which I consider the greatest place on Earth. 5-year former Resident of Flux Factory, co-organizer for World Maker Faire (NYC), and blogger all over the net. Howdy!

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