The reality of our rollercoaster ride of infection is settling in. It’s starting to dawn on people that we’re in for the long haul. The school year is approaching, we can’t put off even non-essential work anymore, and people are still being hospitalized and even dying. Compounded with the upcoming flu season, winter weather, and confusing directive on personal protection and accountability, little is certain.
We could certainly debate how we might recover, but the opinions on the subject are like the proverbial rear-ends, so we won’t get mired in the controversy. Instead I’m going to focus on completely unrelated subjects from this point forward – to escape the reality for a bit, if for no other reason.
Updates to the SES websites are mostly complete, or at least as complete as they will be for a while. Most of the old links are still active, but eventually I’ll be removing those pages, so if you’ve bookmarked them for any reason, I recommend you find the content’s new location (go through the main page’s menu).
The previous newsletter made mention of the DOE Solar Desalination Prize. I pulled the trigger and submitted an entry for SAFES, a Skid-based Automated Flash Evaporator System. We’ll see how that goes, as it’s the first real “prize” competition I’ve entered. The more I look at these things, I think these prize competitions fit one of two categories:
I’m not aware which category this prize is in, so either I have no chance at all, or I need to put together something that will really get attention and grab their interest. Hopefully it’s the second situation, and the work I put into the proposal will at least get me a call for clarification. If you’re interested in seeing the presentation, and my awkward presentation video, go to http://sigmaexpertsolutions.com/design/desal. If you’re reading this, then I value your opinion. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Otherwise, I’ve been looking for work – unsuccessfully. It’s getting old, but it’s the name of the game. I keep optimistic that I will eventually get some sort of a job, but increasingly pessimistic that I will have to settle for a poor work-life balance, or something unfulfilling. I’ll try to keep my rose-colored glasses on.
This is going to be a very polarizing subject. What follows is completely opinion-based, unlike previous newsletters that are based on some science. I’m going to highlight a few people that I contend are visionaries for the mechanical engineering profession. Visionaries are those that really changed my chosen profession. Some may not be engineers in the classic sense. And you can argue that I missed a lot of people (I did, in the interest of time). The intent is not an inclusive list, but examples of how a single person can disrupt the engineering industry and change the course of the profession. I’ll only be talking about mechanical engineers and focusing on people that made the technology practical. In many cases, they may not be the inventors of the technology or developers of the applicable science.
This is a hard subject to cover, so I’m going to go chronologically through the major eras technology and identify any mechanical engineers I feel worth mentioning. I’ll finish off with a missive on the common thread and how we can learn from those visionaries to be better every day engineers.
Mechanical engineering really starts off with the practical application of simple machines to exert force beyond the capability of people. Imhotep is often cited as the first architectural engineer, but I would claim that the way the pyramids were (likely) built, is really a great advancement in mechanical engineering. Novel applications of simple machines created the mechanical advantage needed to move large and bulky stones.
A little bit later, Archimedes used much of the mathematics and science developed in the classical world to build machines assisting in water movement, defenses, and even navigation. His application of newly developed scientific principles to solve real world problems is one of the first examples of practical engineering as it is understood today.
Somewhere around this time period we start converting harvested energy to do work, whether it’s steam power, water power, or wind power. This seems to have happened almost concurrently all over the world in some form, so attributing this to one person is nonsense, but an important historic note.
While Europe was busy licking their wounds, China was insulated and continued to advance. If one thing that changed engineering would be chosen from this time period, it would be gunpowder. Although not a mechanical engineering revolution directly, it spurred many new mechanical innovations in the future – unfortunately mostly implements of war.
A resurgent interest in math and science would imply a lot of activity on the engineering front. And unsurprisingly many interesting machines were indeed made. But it is hard for me to point to any useful item that really changed the world other than weapons.
Certainly, Leonardo Da Vinci and others like him highlighted the importance of scientific understanding and its potential to change the world, but the examples of this potential being met are few and far between. The one notable exception is the printing press from Johannes Guttenburg. Were it not for this mechanical marvel, we wouldn’t have spread the knowledge to allow for future advancements. In this respect, an engineer’s creation was a real turning point in the application of science and a disruption on how knowledge was distributed to foster future advancements.
Innovations in this time period were almost entirely driven by war. Engineers were tasked with leveraging the science and designs of the previous period to secure a foothold for their people in ongoing land grabs. Improvement in ship design, navigation devices, weapons, and land-based transportation systems all played key roles. It seemed to all happen at once, all over the world. For the purposes of this discussion, it’s hard to pinpoint a single person that drove innovation worth mentioning over all others.
This is where our visionaries really take off. A combination of the socio-political climate, the availability of knowledge, manufacturing capability, and well documented histories makes period an engineering goldmine. Picking just a few is hard visionaries is hard, but I’m going to anyway.
James Watt created a steam engine that was efficient and viable for more than limited applications. He did not invent the concept of a steam engine, or even most of the principles in his final design. What he did do is make it efficient enough to be practical, and mechanically flexible so it could be used as a power source in multiple settings. This opened the eyes of the mechanical engineering world. Suddenly motive power could be provided almost independently of the design of the powered machine. Without the concept created by this visionary’s work, much of the mechanical innovations of the future would have looked much different.
The textile industry that defined technological advances. Many different loom and spinning technologies were invented and developed. But my choice of visionary is Eli Witney with his cotton gin. One can debate whether it contributed to the rise of slavery (it did), but its importance to the time period cannot be understated. As a mechanism, little is revolutionary, but the way it transformed the ability to feed the textile industry was ground-breaking, and fueled progress. Without this cotton feedstock, most of the loop technology that increased our understanding of machine design would never have been viable.
Fulton used the steam engine concept and extended it to transportation – specifically boats, which carried the majority of goods at the time. This dramatically changed how goods were moved and their availability. This included easing the spread of machinery, technicians, and ideas. It was the first stepping stone that led next to the train systems and our distributed economy.
This period is mostly concerned with an increasing appetite to power newly developed factories. This required means of power input that surpassed the capabilities of the steam engine. To that end, three visionaries come to mind.
Nicolaus Otto created what would now be considered the most ubiquitous means of powering our world. The internal combustion engine was a revolution – both as an invention, and as a change maker for the world. Much like the steam engine, it further made power production portable and widely accessible. It also led to car development, discussed later.
For land-based power, the electric motor became the new steam engine for manufacturing facilities. Both Sprague (often discussed with Edison) and Tesla were at the forefront of making electricity the primary means of powering our factories. Ultimately Tesla’s concept won out due to challenges of power transmission, but I think we can all agree that the DC technology that Sprague and Edison pioneered is making a comeback and their work heavily influenced the future.
Were it not for the motivators above, perhaps the most important innovation of this era wouldn’t have happened. The factory production line used by Henry Ford used all of the technology of power generation, machine tools, gasoline engines, transportation, etc. to the peak advantage. I’m not sure I would claim that the assembly line is an invention, but perhaps some of the most important application of scientific knowledge (engineering) that the industrial period saw.
The Wright Brothers also leveraged motor technology (namely internal combustion) to create a self-motivated airplane. Glider flight had been achieved by others, but the vision of the Wright Brothers created an industry that has resulted in us looking at Mars as a viable place to live and having palm sized toys that zip around and do flips.
The closer we get to today, the more opinions there will be on who revolutionized engineering. Up to this point, most of the innovations in engineering were mechanical in nature, with that divide starting to show up with electric motors. It becomes increasingly clear at this point that engineering is a broad range of skills. As we’re focusing on mechanical engineering, I’m going to set aside electronics, chemistry, and nuclear. These all certainly have mechanical components (mechanical engineers are everywhere), but I wouldn’t say that mechanical engineers were the difference makers in these areas.
The first real revolution was with rocketry, which of course, was made practical as an implement of war. Goddard is the most influential engineer in this space. Without his influence, it’s unlikely we would have gotten as far as fast. It may have led initially to V-2 rockets and missiles but culminated in technology that expanded the reach of humanity outside of the gravity well.
In the present day, energy is the next revolution. And leading that charge is Elon Musk. It can be argued that he and his companies have not come up with any revolutionary technology. What is without question is that his companies have revolutionized their industries. Whether it’s upending the automotive industry with Tesla or the aerospace industry with SpaceX, few singular engineers have had the vision and will to push boundaries this hard in mechanical engineering since the industrial revolution. Even the Apollo Program, which is perhaps one of the greatest engineering undertakings of all time, was driven by a group of people and there was no singular entity I can point that held it all together.
Reflecting on the mechanical engineers that changed the world, what was it that made them so important? Sheer brilliance? An invention? The power of persuasion? Luck? Those things all have some relevance, but the common theme I see is an understanding of the science available at the time and its application to solve a problem without a fear of failure. That requires approaching a problem from many different perspectives.
As I review this list of engineering innovators, it is also glaringly obvious that it is a list of white men. That is unfortunate. We have lived in societies that empower that particular class the most, giving them the opportunity to be the innovators. It’s my hope that in the future, this list will be much more diverse – not because it’s more politically correct – but because that diversity will spark new approaches to problem solving, driving an even faster pace of innovation. I wait with bated breath.
As engineers, we think making a major impact will require some new design principle or novel breakthrough. We look for something different and cool to call our own. I think what we can learn from visionaries of our profession is that engineers understand the needs of the world around them, and leverage established science, doggedly pursuing solutions. It may not seem that sexy to recast knowledge to solve what is a seemingly simple problem, but it’s the basis for revolutionary change. It’s humbling, but those that innovated were willing to take a risk on failure and ridicule to improve the world as we know it. We can all learn from that model.
I’m often struck by how unimpressive really good engineering is. When done right, everyone thinks, “why didn’t I think of that?”. Sometimes a breakthrough in understanding our physical world is needed, but more often an understanding of its current state is most useful in creating an elegant solution. So instead of focusing on creating something novel, we should strive to solve problems in novel ways. Our currency is not technology, it’s solutions.
Engineers don’t invent new mousetraps. They catch mice, which sometimes requires using a new mousetrap.