Archive for August, 2007

Tire Treads

August 28th, 2007 by Gene

There’s more to making tracks than meets the eye. We’ll look at tires, today on Engineering Works.

Most of us don’t think about the tires we’re riding on until we have to. Tires do more than get you from here to there. They need to hug the road in turns and sudden stops, on wet roads and dry. That’s where tread comes in.

Tread is the part of the rubber that hits the road. But that sporty tread on your tires does more than make your car look cool. Engineers design tread patterns to improve traction – how tires grip the pavement. Traction keeps your car from sliding when you turn that corner a little too fast. It keeps you from getting stuck in snow and mud.

The right tread can even help keep your car from hydroplaning in heavy rain or water on the highway — scary. What happens is a wedge of water builds up under rolling tires and lifts them off the road, and then you’re in trouble.

Tread designs with center channels and slanted grooves, often V-shaped, flush water out the back and sides of the tire so you can steer and brake safely.

But tires in even the best condition can’t do their job unless you drive sensibly. Drive too fast, and those grooves can’t push the water out quickly enough. So slow down on wet roads!

Well, it’s time to make our own tracks and head for home.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by the Engineering Program at Texas A&M University and produced by K-A-M-U F-M in College Station. EngineeringWorks! is on the World Wide Web, too. Visit our web site,

Old new tech

August 22nd, 2007 by Gene

A lot of modern technology has been around a while. We’ll take a trip down engineering’s Memory Lane. Today, on Engineering Works!

When we fire up our wireless laptop computer to read e-mail, it’s easy to think that everything techy was invented yesterday, or last year at the earliest. Some of the technology we take for granted has been around for more than 100 years.

Think about this. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was a world’s fair put on to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World. Exposition organizers made it a showplace for the most modern technology of the day.

What visitors saw included: the first zipper, the first all-electric kitchen – including an automatic dishwasher, the first movies. On the fairgrounds in Chicago, they listened to an orchestra play in New York City with the sound carried to them by long-distance telephone.

They tasted a new kind of chewing gum with a new flavor – Juicy Fruit – and a new breakfast food – Shredded Wheat. They saw a box of stuff that contained everything you’d need to make pancakes. They called it Aunt Jemima’s.

When we’re talking on our cell phone as we drive our hybrid car up to McDonald’s to get a hamburger, it’s easy to forget that engineers developed a lot of the things we think of as modern, more than a hundred years ago.

Oops, gotta go! Our Blackberry is buzzing at us. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at


August 15th, 2007 by Gene

When most of us think of Rome, we get one image in our minds — the Coliseum. We’ll visit, today, on Engineering Works!

The Romans seem to have invented amphitheaters, round or oval structures with seats around an arena. They used amphitheaters to put on big, extravagant games. Modern football stadiums are descended from probably the best-known amphitheater ever, the Coliseum in Rome.

Depending on what part of history we paid most attention to, different things come to mind when somebody mentions the Coliseum. Gladiators fighting each other or wild animals. Maybe lions eating Christians. Experts say the lions and Christians thing probably never happened, by the way.

The Coliseum is huge. It’s an oval more than two football fields long and almost as wide. There was room for at least 50,000 spectators – about one out of every 20 persons that lived in Rome at the time, big enough to play football on the arena floor.

Rooms and passages under the arena held wild animals and gave the gladiators space to get ready to fight. The whole thing sits on a massive foundation, a concrete and stone doughnut 100 feet wide and 20 feet thick.

The Roman engineers built the structure itself out of concrete and three different kinds of stone. It cost a fortune to build – the equivalent of about $50 million, just for the outer shell.

We’ve seen as much of the coliseum as we need for today, and we’re going home. See you later.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at

Musical Robot

August 1st, 2007 by Gene

Robots are picking up the beat. We’ll explain — today, on Engineering Works!

Musicians and computer engineers have been trying to figure out for a long time how to use robots to play music, 50 years or so. The drum machine is probably the best-known robot musician. Program in the rhythm pattern you need and the drum machine plays it.

But there’s one big problem with the drum machine and its relations. Once you program in a particular rhythm, you’re stuck with it until you put in a different one. The machine can’t change patterns or respond to what other musicians are doing — no improvisation.

A new musical robot developed by music technology experts and computer engineers seems to be changing that. Its developers have programmed it with a variety of musical patterns, just like earlier music machines. More important, though, it can hear what other musicians are doing and play along, changing rhythm and speed as they do. Think of “Feuding Banjos” on drums.

The robot doesn’t only play music with human musicians. It looks like one. Well, sort of. Actually, a space alien is more like it. The robot has been performing in concerts around the world with human musicians. It may not be topping the charts, but people are impressed.

What’s next? The robot’s developers want to see if they can teach two robots to play together, listening, playing along and improvising.

Our gig is just about over and we’re leaving. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. We’re on the World Wide Web, too. Visit us at