The Master Locomotive Craftsman of India

There is in Iqbal Ahmed's creations a flavour that is reminiscent of applied mechanics in the the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bringing to mind the names of Watt, Cugnot, Henry Ford, Trevithick and others of that time, men whose spirit of adventure and experiment brought about the revolution in industry and transport. We associate that age with clocks and escapements, Hargreaves' spinning jenny, Daguerreotype photographs, and Faraday's discoveries in the science of electricity and magnetism. Iqbal's creations, though sparkling new, hark back to those times. He uses his skills in fine mechanical engineering to create wonders from an age long past, the age when steel was beginning to come into use for ships, when the steam engine was coming into its own, providing the impetus for progress in nearly every other field of endeavour.

That pioneering age of discovery and invention is brought alive when we take a peek into Mr Ahmed's living room. If you wish to relive the age of steam road rollers, beam engines, and early motor cars, a visit to Iqbal's home is recommended. He lives at one end of Residency Road in Nagpur where he has remained busy crafting an amazing variety of mechanical gadgets dating back to the days when the industrial revolution had begun to sweep across the world. And he is willing to let anyone with an interest in vintage machines visit his place and inspect his collection.

There are two things that strike one as being remarkable when we think of Iqbal's creations. To begin with, his workshop is equipped only with a lathe which means that each of his mechanical gadgets has been hand-crafted with the aid of only a single machine tool. Secondly, he has no fascination for static models; he does not believe in creating models only for display. Each of his models is a working piece. Each is capable of performing with effortless ease the task intended for it.

Iqbal has been into constructing steam engines since a long time: stationary steam engines, beam engines, locomotives, road rollers. It is a passion for him and he believes in turning out each piece with perfection. He had his first experience in model building when he constructed a Swiss electric HO gauge train in 1962. This was followed by a palm-sized stationary steam engine a few years later. Knowing about his fascination for working models, friends often give him books on model engine making and loco construction. "Often the dimensions listed in the book would lead to a model too large, so I generally scale down the parts proportionately," he tells us.

While the steam road roller pictured above is large and heavy, his passion for miniaturization led him to build a stationary steam engine so small it could fit onto a thumbnail. When fed with steam from a separate boiler, this engine worked splendidly, and being the smallest engine of its kind in the world, it soon became a celebrity. It earned Iqbal a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the maker of the world's smallest stationary steam engine.

There are other honours he has received. Although his engine which earned him a place in the Guinness Records is too small to be pictured here in detail, we may inspect his miniature lathe below. He has been regularly entering his miniatures in the Sherline Machinist's Challenge Contest held in the United States, and has been honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 conferred by the Joe Martin Foundation for Exceptional Craftsmanship. His models of a Sherline lathe and milling machines won first and second prizes, a gold medal, citation, as well as a cash award in these contests, and he has been declared as one among the six top craftsmen of the world.

Despite the honors he has received, Iqbal remains a quiet and unassuming person calmly going about his daily pursuits, spending the larger part of the day in his workshop on Residency Road. Amongst his recent creations is a 1:4 size model of a Ford Quadricycle dating back to 1896 complete with carburetor and petrol engine and running on solid rubber tyres ; and an equally fascinating model of a Benz Motor Wagen of 1886, again equipped with both propulsion and steering. Parked in a corner of his living room, one would think these quaint looking automobiles of a bygone age were made to order for a customer, such is the degree of realism and detail he has succeeded in achieving.

The Ford Quadricycle of 1896 is a scaled down version
of the original.

This charming lamp of the Ford Quadricycle was
crafted by Iqbal himself.

Carl Benz Motor Wagen. Iqbal constructed the full engine
for both these motor cars complete with ignition,
carburetor and steering.

Another noteworthy mechanical contrivance crafted by Mr Ahmed in his workshop is the "Mary Beam Engine" we see here, representing an early form of steam engine that was developed and put into use in the 18th century. When Thomas Newcomen devised his beam engine in 1712, it was not his object to arrange for steam powered transport—this would have to wait for another 90 years when Richard Trevithick introduced high pressure steam in a cylinder to propel a road vehicle carrying passengers. Newcomen's engine was large and unwieldy: steam at atmospheric pressure was admitted into a cylinder and allowed to condense. The resulting vacuum caused the piston to move down under the action of atmospheric pressure acting on its top. The slow to-and-fro movement of the piston caused a transverse walking beam to oscillate, imparting its motion to a pump used to empty out water from a coal mine.

The Mary Beam Engine is one of Iqbal's
most charming creations. 
The "Mary Beam Engine", although resembling Newcomen's invention, is not an identical copy, but is based on the modern principle of using steam at pressure in a cylinder, causing the beam to oscillate thereby setting a flywheel into rotation.

Among Iqbal's many creations, "Mary" stands out as a touching example of one of the earliest attempts made by man to employ steam to perform useful work in the service of humankind.

It is going to gladden the heart of any rail heritage enthusiast to know that Mr Ahmed having dabbled all along with loco construction, has gained a remarkable degree of skill in building miniature working steam locomotives from scratch, and is now in a position to fabricate a model locomotive on order for anyone who is keen on possessing one.

Step into Iqbal's home and you will be pleasantly surprised with the sight of two pretty steam locomotives quietly lying side by side on the floor of his living room. The first of these (seen to the right) is a 0-6-0 tank engine, dubbed "Indian Glory", measuring 34 inches in length, 10 inches wide and 14 inches tall. Standing next is the "Fairy Queen" of similar dimensions, being an exact replica of the legendary Fairy Queen 2-2-2 locomotive of 1855 vintage which has been reconditioned to haul tourist specials from Delhi Cantonment to Alwar during the winter months.

Locomotives ready to steam out

Each weighing about 55 kgs, Iqbal's steam locomotives are heavy, and develop enough tractive force to haul along 5 or more adults seated on specially built open cars running on an oval rail track. "When Indian Glory was first built, I was doubtful if it would haul along even a single person, but this engine has amazed us all by its load carrying capacity," he says.

His engines operate optimally within a steam pressure range of 60 - 70 lb/sq.inch, and a safety valve is provided maintaining steam within a safe limit of 120 lb/sq.inch. Each is equipped with a blower, gauge glass, pressure gauge, and cylinder drain cocks. Iqbal's care and attention to detail can be seen in the design of each small part that contributes to the performance of the machine : he provides the piston with a pair of piston rings with gaps staggered to prevent a straight line of escape of steam from one side to another, and his cylinders are kept steam tight with asbestos gland packings. The locomotives work on superheated steam : one large flue tube among 13 smaller smoke tubes provides ample room for the superheater element within, thereby effecting economy in the use of steam.

Both engines are coal fired, the flue gases rising in the firebox and passing through a set of smoke tubes set in a 3.2 mm thick copper boiler. A special pump delivers motor car engine oil to the cylinders for lubrication, whilst an axle pump brought automatically into operation when the engine is set into motion, forces water held in the tank into the boiler, this latter action being capable of being bypassed with a suitably designed valve when the gauge glass shows a full boiler.

Walschaerts valve gear of the Indian Glory locomotive

Fairy Queen, being a scaled down replica of the full-sized engine, employs Stephenson's link motion to actuate the valves. How did Iqbal design Stephenson's motion for his engine? "While at the National Rail Museum of Delhi, I closely studied the working mechanism of the Fairy Queen, and even took photographs. My model is based on these photos and what I learned while at the museum," he tells us. Indian Glory, on the other hand, works on the more familiar Walschaerts valve gear. Both machines use plain D-slide valves with external admission for steam distribution, and are capable of running in both forward and reverse gear.

Iqbal's locomotives have given entirely satisfactory performance until now, and day-long demonstrations have been held at the National Rail Musuem in Delhi, as well as various other venues. Has he ever had occasion to replace a working part of the locomotive? "Wear is minimum here," explains Iqbal. "The cylinder, piston rings, and connecting rod bushes are made of gun metal which is wear resistant. If a connecting rod bush wears away, I only need to replace it with a new one, but so far there has been no need for this. All external working parts are kept well lubricated manually with an oil can before a run."

Perhaps the only thing lacking is the facility for boiler inspection and washout. "From time to time, I clean out the smoke tubes to rid them of the accumulated soot, but there is no way you can open out the boiler for removing scale. All we can do is fill up the boiler and empty its contents through a blow down valve," he says.

And so Iqbal’s collection stands, a poignant reminder of the industrial revolution and of those adventurous times when men were tinkering with mechanical innovations, and physics had begun to unravel the secrets that underlay their successful operation. His hand-crafted miniature models constitute a unique collection that is bound to be of tremendous interest both to steam engine enthusiasts and students of industrial history alike.

Does he have plans to work on any new models? "At the moment, I am preparing a full-size model of the 1886 Benz Motor Wagen," says Iqbal. As for future plans, there are none in sight as yet. "When something interesting presents itself, I will begin to work on it," he says.

Perhaps something interesting will turn up. Having made a great variety of engines both large and small, it is hoped that he will turn his attention in due course to other innovations that made their appearance during the early years of the industrial age. Who knows what lies in store ahead—perhaps one day, Iqbal will surprise us with a model of an early printing press, a spinning jenny, or maybe even Lumiere's kinematograph !

The master craftsman is at work currently on an elecrically
driven locomotive model.

Ravindra Bhalerao