Category Archive 'Engineering'

04 Jan 2017

Quite a Story

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They started construction on the Brooklyn Bridge 140 years ago, yesterday, 3 January 1876. General Custer and Wild Bill Hickock were both still in good health at the time.

The pressure-related malady, “the bends,” was diagnosed for the first time in the course of construction of the bridge’s pilings.

The bridge’s original design engineer, John A. Roebling, died in 1869, before construction had begun, of tetanus, contracted when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry while he was selecting a location for the bridge.

His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project, and became disabled during the course of the project by the bends from visiting the caisson. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, taught herself engineering and effectively took over day-to-day supervision and management of the project.

Emily Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge

The bridge was completed in 1883.

Carolus-Duran, Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling, circa 1896, Brooklyn Museum.

22 Jan 2010

Yoshimoto Cube

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Two stellated rhombic dodecahedrons can be folded into a cube. “A very impressive piece of engineering.”

1:15 video

Hat tip to Forgetomori, forwarded by Robert Breedlove.

19 Aug 2008

Technologists Re-Learning Manual Skills

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The Sunday Times Business section this week described an interesting reverse development taking place at high tech environments like Adobe, Intel, Stanford, and M.I.T.: a return to hand-ons, build-it-yourself engineering training featuring physical tools inculcating manual skills.

At Stanford, the rediscovery of human hands arose partly from the frustration of engineering, architecture and design professors who realized that their best students had never taken apart a bicycle or built a model airplane. For much the same reason, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a class, “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” which emphasizes learning to use physical tools effectively.

“Students are desperate for hands-on experience,” says Neil Gershenfeld, who teaches the course.

Paradoxically, yearnings to pick up a hammer — or an oscilloscope — may deepen even as young people immerse themselves in simulated worlds. “People spend so much time in digital worlds that it creates an appetite for the physical world,” says Dale Dougherty, an executive at O’Reilly Media, which is based in Sebastopol, Calif., He manages a magazine, Make, that is devoted to building digital-era gear.

Fifty years ago, tinkering with gadgets was routine for people drawn to engineering and invention. When personal computers became widespread starting in the 1980s, “we tended to forget the importance of physical senses,” says Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics.

Making refinements with your own hands — rather than automatically, as often happens with a computer — means “you have to be extremely self-critical,” says Mr. Sennett, whose book “The Craftsman” (Yale University Press, 2008), examines the importance of “skilled manual labor,” which he believes includes computer programming.

Even in highly abstract fields, like the design of next-generation electronic circuits, some people believe that hands-on experiences can enhance creativity. “You need your hands to verify experimentally a technology that doesn’t exist,” says Mario Paniccia, director of Intel’s photonics technology lab in Santa Clara, Calif. Building optical switches in silicon materials, for example, requires engineers to test the experimental switches themselves, and to build test equipment, too.

This sort of thing would make all the difference in the Humanities and Social Studies, too, where only too many people, trained only in the manipulation of words, symbols, and ideas, inevitably come to repose infinite confidence in the calculative powers of human reason and the decisions of the State to do more or less anything, including changing fundamental aspects of the human condition. Al Gore obviously believes that we can pass a few laws, add some taxes, regulations, and subsidies and magically economically viable new technologies will promptly spring into being, allowing us to change completely the carbon-based cycle of energy production not only underlying the human economy from the time of the discovery of fire and the domestication of livestock onward, but underlying all life on earth (with the exception of a few bacteria). Barack Obama expects to be able to control the levels of the oceans. You can see that neither of those guys ever built anything complicated and mechanical.

24 May 2008

America and the World’s Energy

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Michael Novak puts B. Hussein Obama in his place.

Candidate Obama, like so many lefties, seems to believe anything bad about the United States, without even submitting it to critical thinking. He said on May 19, 2008, for example, that 3% of the world’s population (i.e., in his calculation, the United States) accounts for 25% of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere. In the 1970s, the lefties used to talk about 6% of the world’s population using 25% of the world’s energy. Even before Obama, they were blaming America first.

The left’s figures depend on what is meant by “energy.” Before the founding and development of the United States, “energy” meant the human back, beasts of burden, windmills, waterwheels, burning wood, coke, and coal, and the like. The United States is certainly not using 25% of the energy generated by those means today. I don’t think so, although it might be. The darn country is just so efficient.

But if we mean by “energy” only the modern sources of energy – electricity, the Franklin stove, the steam engine, the piston engine propelled by gasoline (and now by electric and/or hydrogen batteries), the processing of crude oil into gasoline, nuclear energy, the jet engine, the development of ethanol and other fuels derived from plants, and other devices – all of these except one were invented by the people of the United States, as their gift to the world. (The exception was the steam engine, invented by our cousins in Britain, and further developed here as well as there.)

In other words, the United States has invented nearly 100% of what the modern world means by “energy.” And it has helped the rest of the world to use 75%.

16 Oct 2006

Raising Stonehenge

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Archaologists puzzle and debate over how the ancient Britons managed to move, and erect, the enormous stones used to construct the megalithic monument at Stonehenge.

Wally Wallington can show them how.


Simple, isn’t it?

Wallington also has a web-site,, where he sells a one hour movie via download, or on DVD.

03 Sep 2006

Mechanical Work Good For the Soul

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In one of the Foxfire books, the 1970s-era high school students out collecting Appalachian folklore come upon an old ridgerunner rebuilding a tractor engine. They express astonishment at his abiity to undertake such a project, and the old farmer dismissively replies: “A man built it, didn’t he?”

Things were mostly different then, and they’re gettng more so today, as Matthew B. Crawford observes

an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to “hide the works,” rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.

So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world.

The late Robert A. Heinlein agreed with him.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

–Robert A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long, 1978.

Hat tip to Tim of Angle.

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