Archive for January, 2012

wikipedia.org

wikipedia.org

Riding the Roman rails

January 25th, 2012 by Gene
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Did you hear about the Roman chariot and the railroad train? Listen up. Today, on Engineering Works!

There’s a nifty story about how the gauge of modern railroad tracks is the width it is because of the distance between the wheels on ancient Roman chariots.

As the story goes, Roman chariots made deep ruts in the roads in Britain, where modern trains were invented. To use the rutted old Roman roads, wagons were built with the same wheel spacing as chariots. The first train cars were essentially wagons pulled by locomotives instead of horses, so the rails were spaced to fit wagons that fit ruts made by Roman chariots. When British engineers sent the first locomotives to the United States, those wheels kept the same spacing and so have railroads ever since. Good story. But it’s not true.

The real story is almost as good.

British engineer George Stephenson built the first steam locomotives in Britain. He’d worked in coal mines before he built locomotives and railroads. In those days, mines often had horse-drawn railroads to carry the coal out of the mine tunnels. The rails at different mines often had different spacings. Some were narrow. Others were wide. At Stephenson’s mines, they were about four-feet, eight inches, so that’s what he spaced the rails for his first railroad. He built lots of railroads in Britain, so that width caught on. The rest is history.

We’re at the end of our line for today. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: A lot of our technology hasn’t been around long enough to collect interesting stories about it. Railroads have. What other technologies have interesting history connected to them? Let us know.

For more:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Track_gauge

http://www.snopes.com/history/american/gauge.asp

http://www.railroad.net/articles/columns/history/gauges/index.php

http://trn.trains.com/en/sitecore/content/Home/Railroad%20Reference/Railroad%20History/2006/05/A%20history%20of%20track%20gauge.aspx

Getting a grasp on lightning

January 18th, 2012 by Gene
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getting a grasp on lightning/voice

Mark Twain said it first: thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but lightning does the work. We’ll watch. Today, on Engineering Works.

Everybody knows about lightning. Lightning is those dramatic white forks across the sky during thunderstorms. It’s what makes the thunder boom. It also strikes tall trees and people in exposed places. Lightning strikes kill between 75 and 150 people every year, and injures as many as 5,000.

We know a lot about what lightning does. But we know very little about what causes lightning in the first place. Lightning is electricity, like the electricity that powers our refrigerators and iPads. But it’s very different. Natural lightning jumps from one place to another, or arcs, much easier than less powerful electric arcs. We don’t know why. And we know hardly anything about why lightning happens at all.

A California electrical engineer has a plan to find out more. He’s building two 10-story-tall Tesla coils, powerful electrical transformers that can boost standard 120-volt household power to between a million volts and 100-million volts. That’s enough to light up a fluorescent tube 50 feet away, and make an arc almost as long as a football field. Researchers say that’s far enough that the arcs begin to act like real lightning. Right now we don’t know much about how arcs that big behave, or why. Being able to produce lightning on demand should help us learn more.

You can keep your lightning at a distance, thank you very much. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: At first, this sounds like somebody spending a lot of money to play with lightning. But high-powered electricity and how it behaves could have an impact on how we deal with producing, storing and moving electric power. What do you think?

For more:

http://gizmodo.com/5861712/the-worlds-biggest-tesla-coil-is-about-to-have-some-competition

http://www.geek.com/articles/geek-cetera/scientist-building-worlds-largest-tesla-coils-to-research-lightning-20111128/

http://www.gizmag.com/worlds-largest-tesla-coils/20653/?utm_source=Gizmag+Subscribers&utm_campaign=d882883012-UA-2235360-4&utm_medium=email

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2065138/Engineers-seek-funds-world-s-largest-Tesla-coil.html

http://www.uic.edu/labs/lightninginjury/ltnfacts.htm

Cyril Attias

Cyril Attias

The mystery of the engineering detective

January 11th, 2012 by Gene
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Sherlock Holmes solved puzzling mysteries. Engineers do, too. Come, Watson, the game’s afoot. Today on Engineering Works!

Engineers use science and mathematics to design everything from computer chips to big buildings. Other engineers use science and math to figure out how and why computer chips and big buildings fail. It’s called forensic engineering. Sherlock Holmes would have understood. Here’s how it works.

We all know that the World Trade Center towers collapsed after two airliners flew into them on September 11, 2001. The main facts are easy. Two airliners flew into the towers. The towers collapsed. Explaining how and why it happened is hard. Cue the forensic engineers.

Forensic engineers used their understanding of heat, materials and structures to figure out – how – what happened when the airliners hit the towers caused the towers to fall. First, the airliners hit the towers. Second, almost 24,000 gallons of aviation fuel on board the airplanes caught fire. Third, the towers collapsed.

Engineering analysis showed that it happened like this. Heat from burning fuel softened steel girders and columns, weakening them and causing them to buckle. This buckling weakened the towers’ steel framework and allowed whole floors to fall. Once the floors started falling, their weight caused the floors under them to fall in a chain reaction and the towers to collapse onto themselves.

Disasters like 9-11 don’t happen often. But enough smaller failures happen to keep forensic engineers busy.

Our investigation is done for today. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: It’s too bad that forensic engineers have to do what they do, but anything that’s built can fail. What’s the trickiest failure problem you can think of? Let us know.

For more:

http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/jom/0112/eagar/eagar-0112.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forensic_engineering

http://www.nafe.org/

wikipedia.org

charlesbabbage.net

Bringing the Babbage machine to life

January 4th, 2012 by Gene
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Before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, there was Charles Babbage. Never heard of Babbage? We’ll introduce you. Today, on Engineering Works!

Charles Babbage was an English mathematician who designed what we’d now call a computer. Except that instead of microchips and electricity, his analytical engine used gears and mechanical power. And he designed it in the 1830s. More than 170 years ago.

A team of researchers in Britain plans to spend 10 years and a lot of money to build one of Babbage’s analytical engines, something Babbage himself was never able to do. He kept improving his designs, and eventually the money ran out.

The Babbage analytical engine did a lot of things that electronic digital computers do today. It had a memory, or store; and a separate section where it added, subtracted, multiplied and divided. It also had functions any self-respecting computer geek today knows by heart: conditional branching, looping, or iteration. Parallel processing. Babbage didn’t call them by these names, but the operations were the same.

Programming was done with brass cards much like now-old-fashioned punch cards. He borrowed the idea from cards used to control powered looms in the British textile industry. And the analytical engine’s output would be printed on paper or plotted as graphs.

The researchers hope that building the room-sized analytical engine will inspire today’s computer researchers to come up with new designs for tomorrow’s computers.

Our computer is running fine, but we’re done. See you next time.

Engineering Works! 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.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: We usually think of computers as a distinctly modern technology, but they, or the idea that became computers, have been around for a long time. What other distinctly modern technologies have been around for a long time?

For more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/science/computer-experts-building-1830s-babbage-analytical-engine.html?pagewanted=all

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytical_Engine

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/11/07/science/before-its-time-machine.html?ref=science

http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/

http://www.charlesbabbage.net/charles-babbage-inventions.html

http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/engines/

image in raw images: credit charlesbabbage.net