Sun To Weld By

By Sonia Balcer, Fall 1981
Essay for a freshman English class, composite account from several days leading to the first test run of Sunfire

Looking briefly from our position four stories high at the cable stretched over from us diagonally downward, we prepared for an extraordinary descent. Deftly slipping on our heavy working gloves, we swung over the top and skimmed down along the cable, one after another like paratroopers, our bodies dangling in every which way. Many years we had waited, and now was our first trial run: a full measure of hot steam giving life to a steam engine wrought by our own hands.

This was our project, SUNFIRE, the four-story, twenty-ton solar electric machine destined as a gift to the lonely, tropical island of Pitcairn. And now, with its beautiful white structure posing against the blue sky, its first moments of life were being captured on film by our good friend, Joe Morgenstern, who had just written a magnificent article about us in the New York Times.

A cheer went up from all of us as Beverly checked the sights on the boiler position, and gave the word "go" to engage the valves on the steam engine. With a violent jerk, the engine burst into life, coughing and sputtering with puffs of smoke.

In these first moments of chaos, Mark wildly adjusted the valves to keep it alive, while the call came down to Richard to "Quick! Throw up some wire so we can test it!? With two ends of the wires connected to the alternator, Dave threw the other ends down to where I was waiting. The engine coughed, and seized. I heard the sound of clanging steel as a couple of wrenches rained down near me. In a moment Phred [Dave] had scooped them up, and they were back in Mark's hand just in time, for the engine was giving a death rattle. Desperately, Mark wrenched a last adjustment on them, charring his arm on the hot steam line. But his mind was on those valves, and he bravely steadied himself and applied that last magical touch.

The steam pressure climbed; the chug-a-lugs became more frequent; and the engine suddenly began to whir and laugh in delight. I grabbed the welding helmet and hovered over the steel pipe with the two wires. The RPMs continued to climb. "Now!" they said in unison. With every bit of welding virtuoso I had, I touched the electrode to the pipe; it sparked! The engine groaned. Again and again I anointed the pipe with sparks until a bead of molten metal had formed. The engine stalled. We cheered. We had done it: the first solar machine that welded on itself using its own power! We could now renew our hopes of going to the Island with our machine. Our dream was coming true.

© 1997 Sonia Balcer
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