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John Walter poses with the ''Exploded Engine'' in the lobby at Cummins' Corporate Office Building Wednesday. Walter, now 92, coordinated the deconstruction that displays all the parts of a Cummins Big Cam NTC 350, with aftercooler. (Joe Harpring | The Republic)
OF all the works of public art in this city — including the likes of “Large Arch,” “Chaos,” “Yellow Neon Chandelier,” “Eos,” etc. — there is one that says Columbus more than all the others.
What can be more appropriate to this community than the “Exploded Engine” in the lobby of the Cummins Inc. corporate headquarters?
The “Exploded Engine” is actually based on a real engine — the NTC350 Big Cam — manufactured by Columbus’ leading employer. That engine and its peers (before and after) have been labored over by thousands of Cummins workers over the past 94 years. In a very real sense, it and its counterparts put food on the tables of thousands of Columbus families.
“Large Arch,” “Chaos,” “Yellow Neon Chandelier” and “Eos” are beautiful representations, but none of them can lay claim to a local connection like that.
“Exploded Engine” is not your typical art form. Its artists aren’t typical either. In a way, that’s what makes it so special.
If there was a principal artist behind the concept of reducing a diesel engine to each of its individual parts and depicting them as separate elements about to be pushed together into a single entity, it would be the late Rudolph de Harak, a graphic designer commissioned by the headquarters architect, Kevin Roche, to develop the graphic elements to be displayed in the modernistic downtown building.
While de Harak might have been the artist, the sculptors were a team of Cummins engineers and tradesmen led by John Walter. In 1985 shortly after company employees had moved into the corporate headquarters building, John was an engineer.
‘Exploded Engine’ participants
Cummins Inc. retiree John Walter put together a list of key individuals who had roles in the 1985 development, assembly and erection of the “Exploded Engine” sculpture still on display in the lobby of the company’s corporate headquarters building.
Contributions included, in Walter’s words: machining, surface preparation of parts, design ideas, fabrication, parts procurement, “exploding” various components, rounding up hard-to-find parts, how-to-do-it ideas in the early phases of the operation and “filling the gap when most needed.”
Key participants were:
In that he had spent a good part of his career working on engine designs, he seemed to be a good choice for an assignment company executives had in mind — putting together de Harak’s vision.
“Actually, de Harak got the idea from one of our parts books,” recalled the 92-year-old retiree earlier this week. “One of the pages featured a depiction of an engine in a disassembled form, each of its parts floating around the cylinder block. He came up to me, handed me the page and said that is what he had in mind.”
Dissecting the engine proved no difficulty. Assembling the individual parts and presenting them in a floating environment around its core came to be a Herculean task.
“One of the first things I did was to take the idea to my counterparts in the tool room,” John said. “I got pretty much the same reaction from everybody. ‘It can’t be done.’”
Undaunted, John asked if he could make a presentation before the larger group in the tool room, hopeful that he could round up volunteers to help in the crafting and assembly process. After making his pitch, John looked out over his audience and received in return total silence.
“After a few minutes, one of the fellows, Mike Bowling, said he’d be willing to give it a try, and he helped out with the machining operation.”
Much of the early work took place outside the corporate office building, oftentimes on shop floors.
Individual parts had to be made from scratch and sometimes the process harkened back to the days when Cummins personnel were putting together the vital elements of the company’s race cars that ran at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1930s and ’50s, using whatever piece of equipment was handy and applicable at the time.
In a way that’s really what makes “Exploded Engine” so special. It’s not only a neat piece of art but one that has Columbus written all over it.
As it moved forward, word spread throughout the company about what was being attempted, and suddenly John was besieged by a small army of volunteers who wanted to get involved.
“It was as if everybody had stopped thinking this was some kind of crazy idea and come to the conclusion that it could be a lot of fun,” he said.
He even went outside the company to recruit fellow artists. “Carl Fox made some of our gaskets for us,” he recalled proudly of the contributions by the renowned local cabinet maker.
Eventually the operation reached the point where it was necessary to move the individual elements to the lobby of the corporate office building.
“We were shielded from view by coverings, but employees were often pulling aside some of those covers to check on our progress,” John said. “I remember that one of those who was always looking in on us was J. Irwin Miller (the former chairman of the company), and it seemed that each time he looked in his smile just got wider and wider.”
John likens the assembly and display process to a “bead stringing” operation, individual parts hanging from wires attached to the girders and ceilings above. It had to be a precise operation for each element, ensuring that each piece was positioned properly in relation to the other pieces. “It came to be a two-man process,” John said. “One fellow on a scaffolding attaching the wires and the other on the ground guiding them into place.”
The operation took nine months, and when it was completed, John arranged for everyone who had been part of it to get a sneak preview of the finished product.
“I took them down in groups of five,” the former engineer said. “I really enjoyed that because I could look at them as they studied it, and all I could see were a lot of smiles.”
That’s what most artists do when they look upon a finished product.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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