A crown sheet is an important part of any steam engine. This sheet can be found on any vessel that relies on a boiler or furnace to power an engine, including locomotives and steamships. A well-maintained and properly-cared-for crown sheet is key to minimizing the risk of injury or death whenever steam engines are used.
The steam used in a steam engine comes from a large boiler located on or near the engine. This boiler consists of a tank filled with water, which transforms into steam when heated. Metal fireboxes were often placed right inside the water tank on these engines. Crews could simply shovel wood or coal into the firebox via an opening in the front, while the top, bottom, and sides of the box were fully submerged in water at all times.
The steel panels that make up the firebox are known as sheets, with the top panel known as the crown sheet. A fire within the box heated this sheets, which then heated the surrounding water to produce steam. As steam traveled through the engine or exited through the flues, the water level in the tank went down. The job of every engineer or worker was to ensure that this water level never went below the crown sheet, and that the crown sheet was always fully covered with water.
Crews relied on a simple sight glass located on the front of the tank to help them monitor water levels. If water ever dropped below the crown sheet level, crews knew they had to immediately put out the fire and allow the boiler to cool down. Failure to do so would cause the crown sheet to collapse, which would lead to fires or even explosions. In fact, many steamship or steam locomotive disasters can be attributed to water levels falling below the crown sheet.
Some workers believed that the danger could be averted by simply adding water back into the tank to bring the levels back up and re-submerge the crown sheet. This relatively cold water entering the tank led to rapid steam production, which greatly increased pressure in the boiler. This excess pressure would put too much strain on the crown sheet, and would typically lead to explosions.
While steam engines are rarely used today, many history enthusiasts attempt to restore and operate old locomotives or steamships. Due to the age and primitive technology used on these machines, users and spectators should be aware of the potential danger associated with these engines. In addition to carefully monitoring water levels, operators must have the firebox inspected prior to use to ensure it's up to the demands of operation.