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Machines ample the attic of the Exploratorium, San Francisco’s admired alternate science museum. Over there is a accoutrement alleged Bicycle Legs, in which visitors dispense air pumps to carbon anatomy we use aback pedaling (it’s trickier than it sounds). A few hundred anxiety abroad is a abiding favorite, the Wave Machine, which demonstrates axle after-effects with the about-face of a crank (even I can administer that one).

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But the machines acclimated to body these machines, alternating with the blow the Exploratorium’s 600 or so added alternate exhibits on display, are appropriately arresting, which is why aggregate from a late-model, high-tech CNC (computer afterwards control) apparatus to a cardinal of World War II-era lathes are accustomed places of bulge on the museum’s floor.

The Exploratorium shop: The acme of the Cleereman and DoAll are at bottom-right, while the avant-garde gray commodity in the upper-left is a CNC (computer afterwards control) machine.

These accoutrement are not actuality because they’re admired antiques, although some of them allegedly are, but because they advice the Exploratorium’s dozen or so display builders assignment their abracadabra (or science, if you’d prefer) actuality and at science museums from San Diego to Oklahoma City. You’ll acquisition them aloof above from the Tinkering Studio about center bottomward the breadth of Pier 15 on San Francisco Bay, area the Exploratorium has been housed aback abrogation the Palace of Accomplished Arts, or PFA (a aerial antique of a 1915 world’s fair), in the bounce of 2013.

“The bend into the boutique are the aforementioned as they were at the PFA,” says Tom Tompkins, a automated architect who had some machine-shop acquaintance aback he became a affiliate of the Exploratorium’s aristocratic band of display builders in 1974. “The copse boutique is amid because of the dust, and the adjustment boutique is too. But the blow of the boutique is advanced open. We’re afar from the accessible by a low fence—that’s it.”

With bags of bodies alive by every day, you’d anticipate Tompkins ability be fed up with alive in such a fishbowl, but mostly he enjoys it. “There are canicule aback I’m either on borderline or activity a bit grumpy, so I aloof avoid them,” he says of the clusters of bodies who at any accustomed moment are dabbling alternating that low fence to see what Tompkins and his colleagues are up to. “But afresh there are canicule aback I accept a little added time and I’m activity gregarious, so I’ll accompany a few bodies in and appearance them around, allocution to them, things like that. I like the acquaintance in the shop.”

Even visitors who charge agreeable themselves with the appearance from abaft the fence can get a acceptable attending at the shop’s crammer machines, abounding of which were acquired during the 1970s from long-since-shuttered, bounded aggressive accessories such as the Naval Air Rework Facility (known by its fun-to-say acronym, NARF) in Alameda, California, and the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point.

A array of tags on the ancillary of the Cleereman assignment press. The dejected “peanuts” characterization was put on the apparatus by addition at NARF.

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“Many of the aboriginal woodworking machines—the bandsaw, the jointer, and the planer—were actuality aback I arrived,” says Tompkins. “Some of those machines may accept appear from the Naval Radiological Defense Class at Hunters Point, but I don’t apperceive if it was that lab or addition one. The radiological lab makes faculty because of Frank’s history. He would’ve accepted bodies there.”

“Frank” is physicist Frank Oppenheimer (1912-1985), who founded the Exploratorium in 1969, about 25 years afterwards allowance his earlier brother, J. Robert, body the diminutive bombs that were alone on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. I ask the dumb, accessible question: No, Tompkins assures me in reply, the bandsaw, jointer, and planer are not radioactive.

“By the time I got to the Exploratorium,” he continues, “we had National Science Foundation [NSF] grants for display development. Because we were an NSF contractor, we were able to get our easily on ‘federal balance claimed property’ through the General Services Administering [GSA]. During the Carter presidency, afterwards the war in Vietnam had anguish down, the West Coast was ample with machinery. The GSA was accommodating to drag this actuality off to educational institutions whenever they could—they beatific us account catalogs of aggregate that was available. Essentially, we got a lot of this accessories aloof by advantageous the freight, which was a abundant deal, except for a brace of abundant mistakes.”

“Heavy” as in weight, not “bummer, man,” although in a few cases, there may accept been some of that.

Drill $.25 from the Exploratorium’s display development shop.

“We had ordered an impedance bridge,” Tompkins recalls with a sigh, “which is a accepted allotment of baby class accessories to admeasurement attrition and conductance in circuits, that array of thing. What showed up, though, were three racks loaded with equipment. It was an impedance bridge, but it had been congenital in the 1930s for barometer the impedance of blast lines. It was nice to get the racks, but the blow of it was aloof garbage. The accomplished affair allegedly advised about 1,500 pounds. A few years later, I ordered a 16-inch rotary table to fit our attention milling machine, but I didn’t analysis it out thoroughly. Aback it came in, it advised commodity like 1,000 pounds, which was allegedly added than the machine.”

Since aircraft costs were affected based on weight, these were big-ticket mistakes for the apprentice alignment to make, abnormally at a time when, as Tompkins puts it, “we were disturbing to acquisition money for bulk every two weeks.”

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The key to alienated such errors was for Tompkins to go out and booty a attending at things himself afore he ordered them, which meant places like Alameda and Hunters Point became his stomping grounds. “I spent two or three hours a anniversary over at the Alameda Naval Air Station ample through their warehouses, which were absolutely filthy. Aback World War II, they’d been accumulating dust.”

This DoAll bandsaw came from the Naval Radiological Defense Class at Hunters Point in San Francisco, and no, it is not radioactive.

Upon his return, he’d analyze what he had apparent with the description in the government’s catalog. “The archive gave aggregate a action code,” Tompkins says. “The action was a letter followed by a number. For example, R meant repairable, N meant new, and the cardinal was allegedly the condition, from 1 to 4. But these assessments were accounting by warehousemen, forklift drivers, so you’d acquisition actuality in absolute appearance that had an abominable action code, or you’d see commodity that was never activity to assignment afresh that would be listed as N1.”

Which meant that sometimes Tompkins got lucky. “We got this behemothic Cleereman assignment columnist from the Naval Air Rework Facility in Alameda,” he says, avaricious the handles, accepted as the horns, of the apparatus looming over us. “It can authority a 6-inch-diameter bit and assignment through steel. The affair is gorgeous, and with alone 225 hours on its Hobbs meter,” he says, in advertence to the adverse on the machine’s back, “it was about cast new aback we got it in the ’70s,” (40 years later, that cardinal is still beneath 280, which is still annihilation for a Cleereman). “It was listed as ‘repairable with the bulk of aliment above the bulk of replacement,’ but there was annihilation amiss with it. We additionally got a huge cardinal of aberration drills for it, activity up to two-and-a-half inches in diameter. Aback you are conduct alike a two-inch aperture in a allotment of steel,” he adds with a grin, “the accomplished attic trembles.”

A postwar Le Blond apparatus lathe, sourced from the University of California, San Francisco, aback it bankrupt its apparatus shop.

Not that I agnosticism his word, but Tompkins wants to appearance me the NARF sticker. “I adulation NARF stuff,” he says. “There it is.” Tompkins credibility to a diminutive, red metal rectangle on the ancillary of the machine. “OVERHAUL & REPAIR DEPT, NAVAL AIR STATION, ALAMEDA, CALIF” it reads, a advertence to NARF’s moniker afore its name was afflicted in 1967. “The affair came to us with the ‘PEANUTS 10 CENTS A BAG’ sticker on it,” he adds, apropos to the dejected DYMO characterization amid amid a tag that identifies the assignment as actuality “U.S. NAVY PROPERTY” and addition pegging its date of accomplish to “8-8-45” in Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Somebody over at NARF had a acceptable faculty of humor.”

As with every display at the Exploratorium, every apparatus in the museum’s boutique has a story. “This assignment spent the after-effects of World War II in Los Angeles,” says Tompkins of the Cleereman. How does he know? Well, the Cleereman characterization anecdotic it as a artefact of Green Bay additionally reads “50 CY,” as in 50 cycles per second, or 50 hertz. “The assignment speeds are hardly college than apparent because during World War II, electricity in L.A. was at 50 hertz rather than 60 like in the blow of the country,” he says. “They didn’t change over until a brace of years afterwards the war. Bodies had to about-face a huge bulk of stuff—clocks, almanac players, drills—from 50 hertz to 60 hertz to get in accompany with the U.S. electrical grid.”

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We canyon the non-radioactive DoAll bandsaw that Tompkins had told me came from the Naval Radiological Defense Class at Hunters Point. I acquisition myself befitting my ambit anyway. “This had a U.S. Diminutive Energy Commission sticker on it, but I rewired it a while back, so the sticker may be beneath that electrical box,” he says, pointing to a gray cube that is allegedly abounding with wires. “It would assignment accomplished on wood, but we try to accumulate sawdust out of this allotment of the boutique and grease out of the copse shop, so we alone use it for metal.”

This sheet-metal shear, bogus by Pexto, is addition allotment of accessories the Exploratorium acquired for alone the bulk of shipping.

Just above the DoAll is a quartet of apparatus lathes, which are about a broom’s-length abroad from the accessible allotment of the Exploratorium. “These are the Monarch bifold Es,” he says of the aboriginal two, “the Rolls Royces of agent lathes. The alone complaint I accept about them is that they are a little short,” which is a advertence to the breadth of the actual one can work. “This one is anachronous December 1944, the added one is 1943.”

One of the Monarch lathes is additionally a NARF score. “It was in absolutely acceptable shape, except for a burst cog, which we fixed. It’s allegedly the best authentic lathe we’ve got.”

And it was cheap. “I had to accept the assignment columnist delivered,” he says of the Cleereman, “but for the lathes, we aloof went over and loaded them into a agents member’s auto truck.”

One of the Monarchs has been retrofitted to accomplish it a variable-speed lathe like its cousin. “Listen to this,” Tompkins says as he turns the affair on. The apparatus whirs to life. “That’s a five-horse, three-phase motor active two generators, which drives a DC motor to accomplish capricious speeds. Actual simple.” For Tompkins, perhaps, but I’m absent as he manipulates the machine’s assorted handles and levers to accelerate its shaft spinning. The added Monarch, he tells me, has a three-phase motor with an inverter ambassador on it. “That’s the avant-garde way to get capricious speed. The inverter drive is quieter than the motor-generator setup.” He turns that one on, too. Sure enough, it is.

A saw acclimated to cut linotype slugs from the era aback newspapers were composed on linotype machines is now acclimated to cut aluminum and plexiglass.

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Though Tompkins has accessible amore for his Monarchs, the Exploratorium’s added two lathes (one of which is a Le Blond Dual Drive) are added versatile. “This one is anon postwar,” he says of the Le Blond. “It came to us from UCSF; they bankrupt their boutique so we got it. The added one I would bet is about 1953. These two accept beyond throws than the Monarchs, which agency they can about-face a beyond bore of material, 16 inches instead of 12, and they are abundant longer.”

Passing a mid-20th aeon sheet-metal microburst fabricated by Pexto, we appear aloft a baby drop of a machine, whose roots are absolutely altered from the naval-surplus lathes and assignment columnist of which Tompkins is so fond. It’s a Hammond Glider TrimOSaw, and Tompkins is anon off to the contest with the adventure abaft this one.

“This little puppy actuality is a basic saw,” he smiles, giving it an affectionate pat, “which is not actual broadly accepted about apparatus shops. It was about acclimated to trim the slugs from linotype machines,” he says of the technology invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler and acclimated by bi-weekly publishers from the end of the 19th aeon until the backward 1970s to compose blazon for press. “All the calibrations on it are in points,” which makes it advantageous for barometer and agreement type. “We use it to trim aluminum and plexiglass. Linotype machines are crazy,” he adds. “You could do a accomplished commodity on them.” Noted.

A still activity of clamps in the Exploratorium shop.

The free-equipment gravy alternation came to a arrest during the Reagan administration, aback the rules administering what the GSA was able to account as balance acreage were changed. “Before Reagan became president, we could get machinery. Afterwards Reagan became president, GSA bent that items that were advised ‘common’ wouldn’t be listed. Common items angry out to accommodate about all forms of machinery.”

Which is not to say that Tompkins abdicate thumbing the pages of the GSA catalogs for deals. “I was still able to get some camp eyes stuff. I got annihilation optic I could lay my easily on. Lenses, adorned mirrors, that affectionate of thing. One time they had listed a agglomeration of bittersweet lenses. I couldn’t bulk out what the lenses were acclimated for, so I alleged GSA to get the name of the manufacturer. Aback I alleged them to acquisition out, they said, ‘We can’t acquaint you, it’s classified.’ So I alleged the GSA aback and said, ‘Hey, do you apperceive this thing’s classified?’ Suddenly the lenses were withdrawn—somebody had excessed them by mistake.”

These days, aback Tompkins needs a tool, he can appealing abundant get annihilation he needs by activity online, but in the aboriginal decades, it was t as t can. “We were actual opportunistic,” he says. “If Frank was walking home one afternoon and he anesthetized a barn auction with an old photo enlarger, he’d aces it up and it would become allotment of an exhibit. I got a alarm one afternoon from a agents affiliate city who said, ‘Hey, there’s a bits box bottomward actuality with a agglomeration of bend adamant in it,’ so I took a brace of kids and a agents member’s auto barter and we went bottomward there and got it. We did a fair bulk of dumpster diving.”

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Tom Tompkins stands beside the Cleereman assignment columnist he got for the bulk of aircraft from the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF) in Alameda, California. Top: A Monarch EE lathe from the aforementioned source.

Though he calls himself a “tool freak,” Tompkins does not amusement his treasures like, well, treasures. Hence, it makes no aberration to him that the U.S. Diminutive Energy Commission sticker on the DoAll bandsaw was covered up by an electrical box—rewiring the apparatus appropriately was added important than its history, about storied. Similarly, Tompkins and his colleagues are common about the accessories bodies occasionally try to appoint aloft them.

“As a museum,” he says, “we’re a teaching academy not a accession institution. We don’t booty affliction of things like a accession academy would. Years ago, a woman in San Francisco absolutely capital us to accept her accumulating of scales. It was an amazing collection, with scales activity aback to age-old Assyria. So I beatific her in to allocution to Frank. Afterwards, aback I asked him how it went, he said, ‘I told her she can accord them to us if she wants, but we won’t booty affliction of them.’

“Another guy gave us an old bucksaw,” Tompkins continues, “a one-lunger, gasoline saw with a brand that went aback and forth, a advertiser to the alternation saw. It had a two-cycle agent whose crankshaft bearings were beat out, so it wouldn’t run. So we took it, machined up some assumption bearings, apathetic out the babbitt bearings, got it up and running, gave it a covering of red aerosol paint, anchored the board anatomy that had affectionate of rotted, and gave that a spray-can acrylic job, too. Afresh we sawed a allotment of eucalyptus with it and put it out on the floor. Eventually the guy came back, saw what we had done, and said, ‘You aloof destroyed a admired antique!’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s array of what we do.'”

Lead image: A Monarch EE lathe.

Photos address Ben Marks and Amy Snyder.

This commodity has been excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly.

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