Archive for January, 2008

Roads

January 30th, 2008 by Gene
 
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Climb in and start ‘er up. We’re going to take a little drive today on Engineering Works!

If you’re going to have wheels, you need roads. If you’re going to have roads, you need engineers.

The old Roman military engineers got a lot of ink in the history books for their roads, but the Egyptians got there first. Ancient Egyptian engineers built the first paved road. more than 2,000 years before the Romans built even a hiking trail. It wasn’t much of a road — seven-and-a-half miles that linked a rock quarry to the Nile River; but it was first.

Today, we take paved roads for granted, from city streets to the interstates that connect cities. It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, it really hasn’t been that way very long. Until the 1920s, most highways in the United States were dirt roads. In fact, in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower, then an Army officer, drove across the country on those dirt roads. It took him two months.

President Eisenhower later signed the law that started construction of our nationwide system of divided interstate highways. Now we have more than four million miles of paved public highways.

And just in case you wondered — the first recorded traffic accident involving a motor vehicle happened in New York City in 1896. A motorist hit a bicycle rider and spent the night in jail.

That’s the end of today’s trip. Drive safely.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Digital cameras

January 15th, 2008 by Gene
 
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In the world of photography, digital is the magic word these days. But there’s no magic in digital cameras, just good engineering. We’ll focus on digital cameras, today on Engineering Works.

That new digital camera you used to take those snapshots of your kids at the Grand Canyon looks kind of like your old point-and-shoot film camera, but it’s not. It’s the difference between chemistry and physics.

Your old film camera used chemistry to catch Uncle Steve with the lamp on his head at his birthday party. Light coming through the lens changed chemicals on the film to record the scene in your viewfinder. That same light in your digital camera causes tiny sensors on a computer chip to record a series of ones and zeros. Different colors and tones give you different sequences. A tiny computer in the camera converts those numbers into pictures you can see on a screen.

Unlike your old snapshots, you can e-mail your digital photos to the whole family. And you can print them yourself at home instead of sending them off to be developed.

The ideas behind that new camera go all the way back to 1951, when the first video tape recorder captured images from TV. NASA started using digital technology to record signals from space probes in the 1960s. It was even used in spy satellites.

The first electronic camera was patented by Texas Instruments in 1972, and Sony sold the first commercial electronic camera in 1981. But the first real digital camera to work with your home computer didn’t appear until 1994. Thank you, Apple.

Now, digital cameras are as common as, well, ones and zeros. Say cheese!

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.

Crow technology

January 11th, 2008 by Gene
 
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We’re going to take a crow’s-eye look at some nifty technology. Today, on Engineering Works!

Ornithologists have been fascinated for years with New Caledonian crows. These birds live in the remote jungles of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. And they’re smart. Smart enough to figure out how to make and use simple tools. They’re not about to compete with engineers any time soon, but for birds, they’re pretty good.

They use their beaks to whittle twigs and leaves into little bug-grabbers. And they’ve been seen using grass stems to probe into litter on the jungle floor. No other bird comes close to this kind of – technological – savvy. It’s even beyond most apes and monkeys.

What the human engineers have done is design a tiny camera that ornithologists can clip to the crows’ tails. These cameras weigh about half an ounce, the same as something, and they let the scientists see what the crows see. This is pretty important, because until now, we’d only been able to study New Caledonian crows in captivity. And the way they behave around people is a lot different from the way they act in their own territory.

The tiny cameras send what they see to the researchers’ receivers for study later. G-P-S devices also transmit the birds’ location, so the researchers know where they’re doing what they do.

There’s no camera to watch us, so we’ll take our behavior somewhere else. See you next time.

EngineeringWorks! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. Engineeringworks.tamu.edu.