SUST401 Students Tour Pratt's Landmarked Power Plant

7:22 PM

Carl Zimring offers SUST 401 Power, Pollution, and Profit each spring.  In the first half of the semester, the class discusses the energy sources that have powered industrial society and the consequences of using these sources.  The second half of the semester focuses on evaluating our options for addressing those consequences going forward, and how paths developed over the past two centuries may limit or expand the options we have as we attempt to reduce industrial society's dependence on fossil fuels.
Since the class is discussing the uses of coal and oil in powering the Industrial Revolution at this stage of the semester, early February is an ideal time to visit Pratt's historic power plant and bask in the steam as the world outside is encased in ice.  Built to serve the Institute in 1887, the boilers transitioned from coal to oil apparently some time in September of 1888.  Modifications and improvements happened over the years, and this plant has served the school for over 125 years.
In 1977, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated the plant a landmark, an intact example of how we have harnessed fossil fuel to power a school since the nineteenth century.  Touring this landmark gives students a far less dry (not only due to the steam) example of this important chapter of human history than a powerpoint lecture would convey.  
For almost fifty years, Conrad Milster has served as Pratt's chief engineer.  Each New Year's Eve concluding with 2013, he has connected steam from the plant to whistles that ring in the New Year.  He is an invaluable resource for the history of Pratt Institute, and we were fortunate in SUST401 to draw upon his expertise for a guided tour of the facility.  
We began our tour at the ground-level entrance of East Hall and looked down upon the General Electric
turbines on the floor below.  There is not much noise on the ground level, so Conrad gave the class some context for why the plant was built, how it evolved over the years, and what the students were going to see when they went down to the louder lower level (and talking would be more difficult).

After this introduction, the class descended the stairs to see the boilers in action.  This was loud but fascinating, as we saw the network of pipes and meters in place for decades do their work.  Students remarked that the boilers extended through under the sidewalks outside East Hall.  Looking up at a grate, one student remarked that he had walked over it so many times and had no idea what was beneath his feet.  The tour both provided a perspective on the history of energy in industrial society and raised awareness of the complex infrastructure we take for granted every day.
We thank Conrad Milster for his time and access to this historic landmark.

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