Monday, January 28, 2008

Changing a Tire

I came across a new collection of Library of Congress photos that are being posted on Flickr as Flickr: The Commons. The intent is to use Flickr to get wider dissemination of the photos and hopefully some additional identification and comments on those that are not well documented.

The collection contains some beautiful color photographs from the 1930's and 1940's. One that particularly caught my eye was an image of changing a "tire" on a steam locomotive drive wheel. Funny, I had never thought about the fact that steel tires could be changed in the same way rubber tires are changed. But as the photo demonstrates, changing a tire in the locomotive shop can be a hot job. The steel tire has to be heated to a red-hot temperature to allow the steel to expand and slip off of the inner wheel. Reversing the process, the hot tire is put back on the wheel and allowed to cool and contract to keep it anchored in place.

In both the steel tire and the rubber tire, the principle is the same: pressure keeps the tire anchored to the wheel. In the case of the steel tire, the pressure is in the form of high stresses within the tire compressing it to the wheel. For the rubber tire, it is air pressure forcing the edge of the tire against the rim of the wheel.

If you have an interest, it is worth the time to browse this collection of color photos. There are some amazing shots that cover both towns and industries and, in the later years, the war production efforts. Who knows? You might even see places or people that you know.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quotation for the Day

This is an interesting quote from one of my favorite books. It might be better titled "Everything is connected."


Connections between innovators are ubiquitous— - one good innovation deserves another. LEO BAEKELAND corresponded with EDISON, the WRIGHT BROTHERS, FORD, WILLIS WHITNEY of General Electric, the DUPONTS and BELL. That the engineering potential of Bakelite might be greater than the chemical was ELMER SPERRY’’S contribution. SAMUEL COLT was friends with SAMUEL MORSE. GIANNINI’’S Bank of America took a risk by investing in WALT DISNEY’S’ early movies, including Fantasia in 1940. Disney hired the young BILL HELWETT and DAVID PACKARD to build some of its first electronic equipment for Fantasia. THOMAS WATSON SR. was probably the first passenger in a car with an electric self-starter built by his friend CHARLES KETTERING, who needed Leo Baekeland’’s new plastic for insulation. HENRY FORD used Bakelite for his fenders. Ford’ assemble lines were inspired by the beef and pork disassembly lines in the Chicago factories of the meatpacking innovators ARMOUR and SWIFT. ARNOLD BECKMAN backed WILLIAM SHOCKLEY who hired ROBERT NOYCE and GORDON MOORE whose circuits were used by NOLAN BUSHNELL, the founder of Atari, who hired STEVE JOBS, and TED HUFF, creator of the chip that made personal computers possible, worked for Intel, which called in GARY KILDALL, the most important innovator in computer operating systems, who was betrayed by IBM.

Harold Evans, They Made America

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, statesman, inventor, scholar, businessman, and scientist, was born on January 17, 1706. Franklin strikes me as being about as close as we get to America's Da Vinci. He was a man that seemed to be good at virtually everything. He left his mark on our language (Poor Richard's Almanac), our daily life (lightning rods, fire departments, bifocals), and most especially our country (Founding Father and diplomat extraordinaire).

Franklin always had an inquiring mind. Self-educated, in 1727 he organized a club for philosophical inquiry that he named the Junto (Latin for club). He wrote of it in his Autobiography:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

One spin-off of the Junto was Franklin's later founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. This is America's oldest society for inquiry in science and technology.

The Junto, however, seems to me to be an idea worth reviving. Where in our society today can we find a place where people can talk with friends and colleagues about such a broad range of topics? Most of us find what discussions we can through our work environment. But this is a limited substitute for a group like the Junto.

Recently, I have begun attending meetings of a group called the Socrates Cafe. They are held in many places across the country - coffee shops, book stores, churches - and they are always open to new participants. Socrates Cafe shares some things in common with Franklin's Junto. The meetings consist of groups of people who come together freely to discuss a philosophical questions suggested by the attendees themselves. I find these meetings to generate some great discussions but they do not usually allow inquiries into science and technology. With the rapid advancements in science, perhaps discussions groups are more critical now than ever. We need to be better informed about issues like climate change, energy utilization, nanotechnology and a host of other areas. Something like the Junto may be needed now more than ever. Franklin would have understood completely.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Quotation for the Day

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is unfamiliar with it.

Max Planck, A Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (1949)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Origin of the Computer: Counting Noses

I was interested to learn that it was the U.S. Census that provided the compelling need for the development of the calculating machine, the predecessor of the computer. Herman Hollerith was a young engineer who went to work for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1880. He witnessed firsthand the long and tedious hand tabulation methods used on the 1880 Census data. It took the Census Bureau eight years to finish the tabulations! Hollerith saw the need but nothing came of it immediately.

Hollerith left the Census Bureau for a teaching position at MIT in 1882. He began looking at ways to encode information in punch marks on a continuous paper tape. The needle penetrating through the holes would complete an electric circuit and trigger an electric counter. But the paper tape had too many problems to be practical. On a train ride, Hollerith observed the conductor punching his train ticket. As Harold Ellis relates in They Made America:

The train ticket that Hollerith handed the conductor was also a form of identity card, called a punch photograph, which matched the presenter of the ticket with the purchaser. "The conductor punched out a description of the individual as 'light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.' said Hollerith, who then commented on his adaptation of this system to the census: "So you see, I only made a punch photograph of each person."

On January 8, 1889, he was issued U.S. Patent 395,782 , claim 2 of which reads:

The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.

Hollerith's invention intrigued the Census Bureau but it did not take it by storm. The Bureau arranged a trial between three competing systems on a limited set of data. Hollerith's machine trounced the other two contenders. The Census Bureau ordered multiple machines, machines that Hollerith had no factory to produce. He contracted his electric tabulators to Western Electric and his punch card machines to Pratt and Whitney. Where it had taken eight years to complete the 1880 Census, it took only one year to complete the tabulations for 1890, even though the population had grown by twenty-five percent.

You might have thought people would have been thrilled. Hollerith's tabulations showed that the United States in 1890 had 62,622,250 people. Some people felt that the numbers were much too low to represent the grand growth they saw everywhere around them. The New York Herald even ran a headline stating:

Speed Everything, Accuracy Nothing!

Hollerith's calculations stood the test and the he was vindicated. Hollerith's invention found immediate acclaim and for the next 15 years it was used to tabulate census data not only in the U.S. but also in many other countries. But success was not to last. Hollerith charged exorbitant fees to census bureaus to lease his machines. The U.S. Census Bureau balked after the 1900 Census and invented a machine of their own. The competition soon surpassed his devices and his company languished.

In 1912, Hollerith sold the company to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company. This company was created from a variety of lackluster companies in the general field. It continued to languish until Thomas Watson, Sr. took over as the head of sales and marketing. Hollerith was still chief design consultant for the company, but he hated Watson. They hardly ever spoke. Hollerith finally left the company entirely in 1921. The company was renamed the International Business Machine Company (IBM) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Bridge and a Man

Nor is it always in the most distinguished achievements that men's virtues or vices may be best discovered: but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person's real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battle.

Greek biographer & moralist (46 AD - 120 AD)

Seventy-six years ago this month, construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. Surprisingly, at least to me, the bridge was not an idea that was immediately embraced by everyone living in the San Francisco Bay area. Vested self-interest reared its head, as it almost always does, in the form of opposition and law suits from the ferry boat companies and even the labor unions (who worried that jobs might be given to non-union workers). Despite the delays in beginning of construction, the compelling need for a bridge finally prevailed and work began in January, 1932.

The bridge was a dream of many but it found its most outspoken champion in Joesph B. Strauss. Strauss owned a bridge-building company that was well-known for building much smaller lift bridges, but he had never built anything of this scale before. Strauss was a dreamer, having studied poetry as well as engineering in college at the University of Cincinnati. His senior thesis was a proposed design for a railroad bridge connecting Alaska and Russia across the Bering Strait. But Strauss also suffered from an almost unquenchable need for personal recognition and glory, traits which would become apparent during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Strauss proposed an ugly cantilever-style bridge in his early designs for the Golden Gate project. The first design was a mass of steel girders that would also have cost far more than the city of San Francisco was prepared to spend. Strauss made the acquaintance of Charles Alton Ellis who was a well-known structural engineer (despite the fact that he had no engineering degree, only a background in math and Greek). Ellis in turn collaborated with New York-based Leon Moisseiff. The two proposed to Strauss that a suspension bridge could be built with far less material and hence lower cost. Not inconsequentially, the bridge design was also graceful. Strauss was a pragmatist and quickly got behind the design which was the basis for the bridge that we see today. Also leading the design team was a relatively unknown San Francisco architect named Irving Morrow who provided many of the design details including the art deco designs of the towers, lights, hand rails and other details. He also proposed the characteristic red-orange color for the bridge that is so characteristic of the landmark. (The color was chosen both for its visibility in the fog as well as the aesthetics of fitting into the earthen landscape of the area.

Strauss made sure that he was the public face for the creation of the bridge. The recognition of his other chief collaborators was long downplayed and their major contributions have been recognized only in more recent years. Strauss in a fit of jealousy ordered Ellis to take a vacation shortly after construction got underway. While away, Strauss wrote to Ellis that he need not return as his employment was terminated. Ellis tried to find other work but this was the Depression and he could not find anything else. Ellis continued to work on his own time seventy-hour weeks for over six months to check the design calculations on the bridge that he loved so well.

Strauss made it to the dedication of the bridge in May, 1937. He even wrote a poem for the dedication and there is a statue of him at the south end of the span. But his moment in the limelight was to be short-lived. He died of a stroke the next year at the age of sixty-eight. While his realization of the dream of a bridge across the Golden Gate remains a testament to the best in the man, his exclusion of his key collaborators from the recognition they deserved tells us much more about his character. Strauss would have been far better to share the recognition to create the lasting legacy that he craved.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lighting the Night

I'm looking for a replacement for the hanging light on my front porch. After ten years, the light is looking a little worse for wear. The design is pretty typical - traditional lines and beveled glass. It got me thinking about why even in the 21st century, we seem to still need to emulate the designs of lanterns that are hundreds of years old. We clearly derive comfort from the continuity that comes from tradition. The source of the light within the lantern has gone through a lot of changes - candles, gas, electricity - yet the shape of the lantern stays much the same.

This led me to wonder about the history of outdoor lighting. I'll quickly breeze past the open fire and burning torch stages, but planned civic lighting seems to date back thousands of years. Hazel Rossotti in her book, Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma, describes how the ancient Egyptians required that each house or store that bordered a street have a brightly lit front room to cast light out onto the avenue. Similar findings have been reported in Pompeii. By the 4th Century AD, street lights consisting of oil lamps hanging from ropes lit the streets of Antioch and Caesarea. Paris had the first compulsory street light law, passed in 1367. Lights were required to be hung at specified distances to deter crime. The French scored another first with a new design of oil lamp that lit the entire road from Paris to Versailles (where else?) in 1777.

Gas lighting emerged as the preferred source of outdoor lighting in the 1820's and persisted in some places until after World War I despite the rise of the incandescent light. But electric lighting inevitably carried the day (or night). Now we have to deal with the problems of light pollution which make the night sky all but invisible in high population density areas. A lot of us live in a very well-lit world, indeed.

But I see beauty returning even to modern street lighting with better designed fixtures. They are reducing light pollution and many of them once again mimic the external designs of a prior century.

Which brings me to yet another recent example of modern lighting mimicking an older technology. My wife was in a Brookstone store over the holidays and found a candle, well, sort of a candle. It looks like a candle, wax and all but in place of a wick it has two LED lights that flicker when powered on. It also has an aroma chamber that emits a candle scent from a small pump. Hmm. I am sure there are places where this device would indeed be safer than a real candle but is this really progress? I can see the ad: Scented Candle (Batteries Not Included). We go forward while reaching back. It seems to give the comfort we need to progress.

[Image of candles from Brookstone. US at night from NASA]

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quotation for the Day

We have the habit of writing articles in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’ any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get the work done.

Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Lecture, 1966

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Born to Build

I haven't posted much of late. I have been on vacation without an internet connection and it was just too difficult to post. Being without a connection for an extended period was tough but I discovered (rediscovered?) how much I like to read a book or play a game with family or just take a walk. It was a very nice break. In any event, now I am back and I hope to continue my musings when I think I have something to say.

Yesterday, we were down at the beach (we winter in Florida) and it struck me just how deeply embedded is our desire to build. I watched toddlers still in diapers tripping across the sand to dig a hole or fill a bucket with shells or water. Kids just a little bit older were busy making more elaborate holes and simple sand castles with a mote. Their parents...usually, their dad...was into a kind of sandy empire building with multi-layer castles, motes, shell decorations, and generally outdoing their neighbor's sand castle.

Why the deep urge to build? Where did this desire come from? Do we have it programmed into our genes? Does a sandy beach and a pail and shovel simply demand to be tamed? I don't know but I think it says a lot about us. Not only do we build but we build simply for the fun of it. We don't need a reason. We just like to see what might be possible to create with the world right in front of us. Sand (and water) turn out to be a particularly rich combination of building materials. The sand is plentiful. A little water turns the grains into a moldable material that stays put, within limits. Sand is so easy, to dig it is literally child's play. The only things that comes close to sand and water is mud and clay. But sand is a lot more fun.

Given this early exposure to building for fun, it doesn't surprise me that our ancestors first built with mud and simple bricks. I can easily imagine a child of six or ten thousand years ago doing just what kids today do and in the process learning the basics of brick making. It would take millennia for the art of building to move to more substantive and difficult materials. But the world did pretty well for a very long time with only the simple mud brick. I like to think it started with a child and a pile of sand or mud. We were born to build.

[Image of ancient city of Mohenjo-daro from Indus Valley, 2600 BC, Wikipedia]