Long-time POWER readers may remember Marmaduke Surfaceblow, a fictional character whose engineering escapades were brilliantly portrayed in hundreds of stories published within POWER magazine’s pages over more than 30 years beginning in 1948. Today, the story continues through Marmy’s granddaughter, Marnie, who is an engineering wiz in her own right.
Marmaduke Surfaceblow was a crusty character, who provided POWER magazine readers with imaginative tales of entertaining engineering feats. He was basically a MacGyver, before there was a MacGyver. At one time his name was even used to identify one of POWER magazine’s most-coveted awards—the Marmaduke award—which recognized projects for exceptional ingenuity and innovation.
Stephen M. Elonka was Marmaduke’s creator. He fashioned the man as a 6-foot-4, steelbrush mustached, marine engineer with a foghorn voice, who smoked acrid cigars, drank gin, and wore size 16 “canal boat” shoes. Elonka said the name was a combination of the Scottish name Marmaduke, and Surfaceblow, a method of removing dissolved solids from a steam boiler. He said the character was “a composite of all the tough, hard-working, hard-playing, but capable and ingenious stationary and marine engineers” with whom he had worked and sailed with aboard 21 merchant ships and two navy vessels during World War II.
Elonka used his experience to write elaborate stories incorporating clever, yet practical, repairs to keep energy systems operating using mostly common sense. The stories often included unusual and humorous incidents, and readers grew to cherish the character and his exploits. Some subscribers reported it was the first thing they read in every POWER magazine issue.
Marmaduke was a machine engineer by trade, with great knowledge of the inner workings of machinery. Marmy’s office was set above O’Houlihan’s Machine Shop in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. Elonka’s stories often began there, with a gathering of engineers, talking about various aspects of their jobs. Marmaduke 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 (Figure 1). Many, if not all, of the stories were inspired by actual events, and some readers would write to Elonka with tales of their own to use as a basis for future Marmaduke adventures.
Marmaduke had an 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 Marmaduke’s #5 cigars would often leave others teary-eyed. He was also famous for his love of Sandpiper Gin (Figure 2). In some of Elonka’s stories, he placed Marmaduke “on the beach without a berth,” a phrase that meant he needed money. In such a situation, Marmaduke might offer to solve another engineer’s problem, saying he only required a “consulting fee,” which could mean money or—and sometimes in addition to—a bottle of his favorite drink. As Elonka wrote, Marmaduke would solve the problem, and “ballast his double-bottoms with Sandpiper Gin.”
Marmaduke’s knowledge of machinery came from his hands-on experience with the operation of steam power plants. However, in 1971, Elonka decided to expand the knowledge base for his articles. It was then that he introduced Marmy’s long-lost son, Guy Newcomen Surfaceblow, to the storyline. Unlike Marmaduke, Guy was a “book engineer” working toward his PhD in engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York.
Guy was a “cleancut, six-foot-two, nattily attired, well-mannered” young man (Figure 3), who happened to possess a photographic memory. To gain some experience and help pay for his education, Guy decided to help his dad on some troubleshooting assignments. The younger Surfaceblow filled an important role in the evolution of Marmaduke stories because energy systems had advanced dramatically from the technology that was in use when Elonka began writing. Solving problems involving nuclear power reactors, solid-state electronics, and complex instrumentation systems required more than just common sense, so Guy’s extensive education in engineering and science was vital to the effort.
In 1978, Elonka teamed Guy up with his “beautiful and brilliant advanced-physics classmate,” Dr. Debby Primrose, to open a branch office in Manhattan in the “sparkling 52-story … Rockefeller Center.” With a tie-line to Marmy’s west-side home office, Guy updated the firm’s name to Surfaceblow & Associates International, and began taking all types of assignments including sophisticated space-related problems.
Elonka wrote more than simple fiction. In addition to chronicling Marmaduke’s adventures, he also authored or co-authored at least 10 technical books on subjects such as boiler, electrical, instrumentation, equipment, refrigeration and air conditioning, and general plant operations. Yet, his Marmaduke stories are perhaps his most beloved work.
A college professor once wrote to Elonka: “Before students major in engineering, I’d advise the embryo engineers to read a collection of Marmaduke/Guy stories. Reason? They reveal the gutsy side, the romance if you will, and the challenges faced in the field that you don’t find in the dry theory of textbooks.”
Elonka put together a volume of Marmy stories in the book Marmaduke Surfaceblow’s Salty Technical Romances, which was published by Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co. in 1979. The book is rare, but still available today, including in PDF format from the POWER magazine Store.
Elonka died in 1983, relegating Marmaduke to the annals of history. However, with POWER preparing to celebrate its 140th anniversary, the magazine’s editors decided to try to recreate the magic of Marmaduke. In May 2022, POWER began publishing stories featuring the character Marnie Surfaceblow.
Like Marmaduke, the name Marnie is of Scottish origin. In POWER’s fictional world, she is the daughter of Guy and Debby, and the granddaughter of the late Marmaduke. Today, Marnie, an accomplished professional engineer in her own right, has been placed in the role of vice president and lead field engineer for Surfaceblow & Associates International.
Marnie doesn’t work alone, however; she has an important sidekick in Maya Sharma, a 28-year-old engineer, who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology of Mumbai. Marnie befriended her young prodigy during a consulting visit to a power station in India, where Maya was a lead shift operator.
As fate would have it, Maya was available for hire following her dismissal for insubordination when she refused to allow a commissioning activity to take place for safety reasons. Marnie, having observed the incident, understood all too well that Maya was in the right; yet, she was fired nonetheless—a stroke of good fortune for Surfaceblow & Associates International. Marnie quickly offered her a position with the firm.
Since being introduced in the May 2022 issue of POWER, Marnie and Maya have solved a boiler issue at Marnie’s old high school, optimized the operation of a combined cycle power plant (Figure 4), identified feedwater heater drain valve leakage that was hurting a plant’s heat rate, troubleshot issues plaguing a biomass-fueled boiler, and cracked a case involving oil tank level fluctuations. Indeed, the pair has had a busy year already, but there’s much more to come. We hope you enjoy reading the adventures of Marnie and Maya, as the legacy of Marmaduke lives on.
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor, and Darrell Proctor is a POWER senior associate editor.