135th Anniversary—Engineering a Legacy: Marmaduke Surfaceblow

Marmaduke Surfaceblow was a crusty character, providing POWER magazine readers with imaginative tales of engineering feats, and lending his name to one or our most-coveted awards.

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He might be fictional, but Marmaduke Surfaceblow became synonymous with POWER magazine, a colorful character with a distinctive way of finding solutions to engineering problems. Author Stephen Elonka introduced the imposing cigar-smoking, gin-swilling Surfaceblow in POWER in 1948, and he was a worthy mascot for the brand, lending his name to the magazine’s Marmaduke Award for excellence in power plant problem-solving through 2014. Today it’s known as the Reinvention Award.

Elonka, who was born in 1910 and died in 1983, said the character’s name was a combination of the Scottish name Marmaduke, and Surfaceblow, a term for the action of removing impurities from a steam boiler. Elonka himself authored several technical books, including the well-known Standard Plant Operators Manual, originally published in 1959.

Marmaduke Surfaceblow (Figure 1) was a machine engineer by trade, with great knowledge of the inner workings of machinery. Elonka painted a descriptive picture of Surfaceblow in every story, noting his 6-foot-4 height, steelbrush mustache, and size 16 “canal boat” shoes. He frequently referred to the character’s affinity for smoking Ringelmann #5 cigars. The Ringelmann scale, developed by a French professor in 1888, measures the apparent density of smoke, from 0 (white) to 5 (all black). It was written that Surfaceblow’s #5 cigars “produce acrid clouds, leaving others teary-eyed.”

A teller of tales. Marmaduke Surfaceblow was introduced to POWER magazine readers in 1948. He was known for his imposing size, signature mustache, and affinity for cigars and gin, along with an ability to solve complex engineering problems that baffled others. Courtesy: POWER magazine archives

  1. A teller of tales. Marmaduke Surfaceblow was introduced to POWER magazine readers in 1948. He was known for his imposing size, signature mustache, and affinity for cigars and gin, along with an ability to solve complex engineering problems that baffled others. Courtesy: POWER magazine archives

Surfaceblow’s office was above O’Houlihan’s Machine Shop in the Hells Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. Elonka’s stories often began there, with a gathering of engineers, talking about various aspects of their jobs. Surfaceblow would then take the topic and run with it, regaling his listeners with a tale of how he arrived at a solution to the problem. It was said that some of the stories were inspired by actual events.

One story involved an engineer relating a story about a difficult, hard-to-start diesel engine. Surfaceblow responded in his booming foghorn voice: “’Bilgewater on balky diesels! I’ll tell you about the time I ran a boat engine on water!” As he talked, he turned up his induced draft fan and filled the room with his acrid cigar smoke.

“ ’Bilgewater on balky diesels! I’ll tell you about the time I ran a boat engine on water!” —Marmaduke Surfaceblow

He also was famous for his love of Sandpiper Gin. Elonka wrote how Surfaceblow would be “on the beach without a berth,” a phrase that meant he needed money. He would offer to solve another engineer’s problem, saying he only required a consulting fee, which could mean money or—and sometimes in addition to—Sandpiper Gin. As Elonka wrote, Surfaceblow would solve the problem, and “ballast his double-bottoms with Sandpiper Gin.”

Surfaceblow’s knowledge of machinery came from his hands-on experience with the operation of steam power plants. Elonka later in the series introduced a son, Guy Newcomen Surfaceblow, who also had field experience to go with a university education.

Elonka put together a volume of Marmaduke Surfaceblow stories in the book Marmaduke Surfaceblow’s Salty Technical Romances, published in 1979. The book is rare but still available today, including from the POWER magazine store.

—Darrell Proctor is an associate editor with POWER magazine.