Sunday, July 28, 2013

Two Kinds of Mechanics

A friend sent me this comic in which a guy with a toolbox offers technical advice to someone running a particle accelerator. It's titled "Quantum Mechanic".

My field of specialization within mechanical engineering is called "applied mechanics" or "engineering mechanics" or for the truly status-seeking, "rational mechanics." We like to think of ourselves as better than mere mechanical engineers because of our conspicuous use of mind-bending mathematics. Some in the field refer to themselves as "mechanicians" but this has never really caught on.

Both mechanics and engineering could probably benefit from new names. Mechanics are people who fix mechanical things, and this obviously has only a remote connection with mechanics, the academic field. You have academically trained engineers, and then you have guys who run locomotives. A colleague used to show up at work every Halloween dressed as a locomotive engineer, in a striped hat and overalls and the whole getup.

Then there are "operating engineers", who are as far as I can tell are people who operate certain kinds of mechanical equipment. In college I had a summer job as a construction worker in a high-rise that was being built in Columbus. We often had to take the elevator between floors, but were not allowed to push the buttons. No. We had to tell a fat guy sitting on a folding chair which button to push. He rode up and down all day in the elevator, proudly sporting an "Operating Engineers Local XX" badge. Here I was slogging through differential equations when all I had to do to be an engineer was join a union.

And mechanical engineering conjures up, what else, but mechanisms. People hear mechanical engineer and they picture those giant flywheels you see in museums. But mechanisms are only a small part of mechanical engineering. The field encompasses thermodynamics, controls, fluid dynamics, and other subfields. We should call ourselves Physical Technologists or Gods of Physical Thunder or something more appropriate.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mystical flying numbers

Numbers are usually a means to an end, but some people find mystical qualities in the numbers themselves. Ever since the ancient Greeks were shaken by the discovery of irrational numbers (and probably before that) people have attached supernatural qualities to certain numbers. You know all quarterbacks want to have an even number, preferably 12, and all running backs will take 32 if they can get it. Some airlines omit row 13 from aircraft, and I am told that in East Asian cultures, the number 4 is associated with death. In Japanese, the word for four is shi, which also means death. Sometimes they say yon instead of shi for four, kind of like we might say darn instead of damn.When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, my Japanese colleagues at Honda often had occasion to take a cab from the airport. Unfortunately, one of the major cab companies chose the phone number 444-4444 and plastered it all over their cabs. On the other hand, East Asians like 8. I once had a phone number full of 8s, and a Chinese friend said I should try to sell it to Asians.

Airplane companies and their marketing consultants have tapped into these superstitions for decades. The basic idea is that a higher number must mean it's a better airplane. In the early days of airliners, a simple sequential numbering system took hold. From the Douglas company came the DC series, with the DC-3 in the 1930s being their first real airliner.To Douglas's credit, they never got fancy with the numbers. By the 1960s they were up to the DC-10, and they continued the same sequence even after they were bought out by McDonnell. They managed to produce the MD-11 and had sketched out an MD-12, but that never came to fruition, and the line came to an end with the buyout of McDonnell Douglas by Boeing in 1997. Perhaps the buyout was facilitated by the knowledge that the next McDonnell Douglas plane would have to be the MD-13. These were the large airliners. McDonnell Douglas did branch off another line from the smaller DC-9, creating a stretched version called the MD-80. That line got as far as MD-95 before the buyout.

Boeing, on the other hand, gave a little more thought to the connotations of their numbers. They reached 377 in the 1940s, and someone must have liked the sound of those lucky 7s, because of course their first jetliner was the 707. (Aside: the 707 was called the 367-80 or "Dash-80" in the prototype stage. There was also a 720 that you've probably never heard of.) They went on to the 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777 and 787. They seemingly skipped the 717, but that number had been used internally for a couple of things. When Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas, they slapped the 717 label over the MD-95, but few of those planes ever sold.

Now we get to the real marketing genius. In the late 1950s, Convair, a successful producer of turboprop airliners, wanted to get into the jet business. Their competition was the 707 and the DC-8. They originally called their first jet the Convair 600, which was a continuation of their turboprop line which had reached 580 by then. But some marketing genius must have looked around and seen the 707 and DC-8 sporting "higher" numbers. So they changed it to the Convair 880, with the pretext that 880 feet per second was the planned speed of their new jet. They then went one better with the 990, which of course was supposed to go 990 feet per second. Unfortunately, the 880 and 990 were both beautiful dogs, and they nearly bankrupted the Convair company. But you can still see old Convair turboprops all over the world.

Lockheed had built a sleek and successful piston-driven airliner called the Constellation, with no number used in marketing, but most of the large airplanes they built in the 1950s and 60s were military transports: the C-130, C-141 and C-5. (The military doesn't care about numbers. I make joke here. Numbering of military airplanes is laden with superstition as well.) When Lockheed decided in the mid-60s to build a jetliner, the main competitor was the DC-10. In fact, the design they eventually came up with was almost indistinguishable in appearance from the DC-10. The most obvious difference is that the DC-10's tail engine is not faired onto the fuselage. But this didn't hold back Lockheed's marketers. They said, screw it, we're going to match your bet and raise it: our plane will be the L-1011 (pronounced ten-eleven.)  It's like your DC-10, only one number better! The L-1011, like the Convair jets, was a commercial failure. Lockheed lost millions and never built another airliner.

Now, I'm sure that in every one of these cases, the marketing department came up with a cockamamie rationale for why those exact numbers were chosen (the 880 feet per second business is one.) Lockheed probably claimed they had an L-1010 on the drawing board, but it just wasn't up to snuff, so voila, the next plane had to be the L-1011. But I ain't buying it.    

Saturday, July 20, 2013

J.R. Edwards

So it's time for a post about one of the interesting characters in my family history.  Let's start in the recent past.

When I was ten, my mom announced a new baby was on the way, and there was some family discussion about what the baby should be named. If it was a girl, my mom would have picked the name, because she wanted a girl badly after two boys. But everyone offered up opinions on boy names.When the baby came, it was a boy, and my parents announced that his name would be Jacob Roe Henson. This wasn't one of the names that had been discussed; it seemed to have come out of nowhere.

Dad's mother, known to us as Mamaw (Appalachian for Grandma), turned white as a sheet when she heard the name. It would be years later before I fully understood why.

It transpired that Jacob Roe was Mamaw's father's name --- and she hated her father. Hated him so much she never spoke his name, which is why none of us except Dad knew where the name Jacob Roe came from.

His full name was Jacob Robillard Edwards. Years of genealogical research showed that Mamaw had pretty good grounds for hating the guy. J.R. Edwards was born in western North Carolina six weeks after the Civil War ended. He married early and had five kids by 1894. The kids seem to have stopped coming after that, even though in the summer of 1900 he was still with his family in Carolina. In 1901 he went to the area around the Tennessee/Virginia border to work as a logger. He never went back to North Carolina. Whether he left his wife directly, or had to go to Virginia for work and decided he didn't want to go back, I do not know.

In Virginia he met Nancy Jane Thomas and evidently had some trouble with her folks, because in a letter he said "they was not good people". He and Nancy went to West Virginia, where Mamaw, their oldest, was born in late 1902. They had three more children over the next six years. I have my doubts that he went through the legal formality of obtaining a divorce from his first wife, but he and Nancy lived as husband and wife in West Virginia.

In 1909, he once again moved on to greener pastures. He got a neighbor girl pregnant, and they ran off to seemingly the farthest point they could go without leaving the country: Bellingham, Washington. There was logging work there.

Nancy was left with four kids in a time when women couldn't get jobs. She took in laundry, but soon became ill and died in 1914. With J.R. long gone, the kids were effectively orphans. They were farmed out to Nancy's friend, but the friend's husband turned out to be a drunken jackass. So at 13, Mamaw had to manage her three younger brothers as they struggled to stay out of the way of their "benefactor". J.R. was nowhere to be found. Thus the hate.

The rest of Mamaw's story is another post. J.R. and his young paramour went to Washington, where he continued to work as a logger. At one point, and I believe this must have been during one of the minor British Columbia gold rushes, he decamped to Prince George, BC to work a gold stake, but nothing came of it. He had six more kids in Washington, the last born in the late 1920s when J.R. was in his sixties.    

Around 1932, letters from J.R. started arriving in the mailboxes of his kids, who were scattered between Indiana and West Virginia by then. He was unhappy, he said, overworked and unappreciated in his old age, and had come to regret leaving his West Virginia family behind. But, he implied, if only they would come out to Washington to visit him, he would tell them the whole story and they'd understand.

Mamaw, as well as her two brothers, Gary and Roe, never answered the letters. But their sister Fannie not only answered the letters, she started a correspondence with a heretofore unknown half-sister, Josephine, who was born to J.R. in Washington. Fannie also wrote to J.R.'s first family in North Carolina. But the letters, many of which I have, never answered the real question of why he ran. I suspect he didn't have a clear reason. He was just a rolling stone, a trait that has been passed down to several of his descendants, probably myself included. He said in one letter, "It is a poor idea for anyone to think where they live is the only place." On that I have to agree with the old bounder.

In 1936, word came that J.R. had drowned in the Satsop River, near the Schaefer Brothers' logging camp where he still worked at the age of 71. Family legend had it that foul play was involved, or that it was suicide, but all the legal documents say he just fell into the river while fishing. His tackle was found on the shore.

Why did Dad name his son after someone he knew his mother hated? Years later he claimed it was inadvertent. He said he just liked the name Jacob, and also had an Uncle Roe, and didn't realize Uncle Roe's name was from his father, J.R. Edwards. I don't buy that; I think he did it on purpose to annoy Mamaw, who he never really got along with. J.R. was his favorite ancestor, which is puzzling. Dad had very rigid views on the sanctity of marriage, yet he overlooked the fact that J.R. had run off with a neighbor girl and left his kids destitute.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Kevin Starr's California

California has fascinated me since I was a teenager, and I got to live in both the Bay Area and LA/Long Beach when it was compatible with my family situation. So I've been meaning to read Kevin Starr's multi-volume history of California for years. I've finally had time to start, and I started with my favorite era, 1950-1963, to which Starr devotes an entire 576-page volume.

Far be it from me to impeach Starr's history (the book is fascinating), but I did find a few factual errors in his discussion of the California aerospace industry. I don't think any of these errors affected the thrust of his narrative in the least, yet I feel compelled to correct them, because I read about this sort of thing for fun.

1. There is a paragraph about the B-36 bomber that implies it was built in San Diego. While Convair designed and mocked up the plane in San Diego, it was built by Convair in Air Force Plant 4 in Fort Worth, Texas.

2. The Lockheed "Skunk Works"originated not in a "remote location in a skunk-infested field" but rather in beautiful downtown Burbank. The name seems to have come from the smells of a nearby circus tent.

3. Alan Shepard, America's first astronaut, rode into space not on a San Diego-built Atlas, but on a Redstone built by Chrysler in Detroit (!) That was the only manned launch of a Redstone; it was really only used because the Atlas wasn't ready in time. However, Chrysler did go on to build the booster stage of the Saturn I-B that was used in test launches of some Apollo hardware. The Saturn I-B booster was pretty much just 8 Redstones strapped together.

4. Starr credits Rocketdyne of Canoga Park with a few too many programs. As Starr says, Rocketdyne built the engines for Navaho, Redstone, Atlas, Thor, Saturn and Jupiter. But Skybolt (Aerojet) and Titan (Aerojet and United Technology Center) were propelled by engines from other California companies. Minuteman and Polaris had solid rocket motors from several companies over the years, including Aerojet and UTC, but also used motors from Thiokol and Hercules produced in that other great center of American rocketry, Utah. I believe Rocketdyne did produce some small steering rockets for the Minuteman re-entry vehicle.

5. Vandenberg AFB was named for General Hoyt Vandenberg, not Senator Arthur Vandenberg. Arthur was Hoyt's uncle.

6. Aerojet was founded in Azusa, and produced a large number of JATO rockets there, but I am not sure I would agree with Starr that Aerojet was "headquartered" there. Its corporate headquarters were those of its parent company, General Tire and Rubber of Akron, Ohio, while its largest facility was (and is) near Sacramento. General Tire also owned RKO Pictures of Hollywood and a bunch of radio and TV stations in California. (This was truly the age of the conglomerate.)

Come to think of it, this is quite a list of errors. But I'm gonna finish the book anyway.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Catching up

In my biography, they'll write, "A silence of several weeks passed unremarked, then he began blogging again."

We live in Niskayuna, New York now. Here's a picture of my boys at the local minor league ballpark:

We didn't see the game because there was a two-hour rain delay, which pushed it too late in the evening for us.

Last weekend we made an overnight trip to Boston. Great town, but it was hotter than Hades, so hot it was hard to have a good time. The coolest place in town was the Museum of Science. The "Mathematica" display by Charles and Ray Eames (of Eames Chair fame) was fantastic. I don't think I've ever seen a math section in a museum before, probably because when people decide to set one up, they take a look at Mathematica and feel like an amateur painter looking at the Mona Lisa, so they give up.

The boys enjoyed the lightning show, and the presenter did a great job. She made a point that a lot of scientists probably don't stop to think about: you can't directly observe a force. Forces are the fundamental explanation for changes in motion, yet their existence can only be inferred by observing the motion or deformation of bodies. You might think you can feel forces, but what you're feeling is the strain the force causes in your sensory organs like the nerves in your skin or the balancing apparatus in your inner ear. There's no physical principle by which a direct force-measuring device can be constructed. You need to assume an equation that relates force to something else you can measure, like the stretch of a spring.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was a sort of meta-museum section where they kept old items no longer displayed in the main museum - taxidermy, a video loop of a commercial for the museum from about 1978, and a very 1960s viscosity exhibit:

If you're not accustomed to reading psychedelic rock concert posters, those green blobs actually spell out "viscosity". Groovy, man. You're supposed to spin the thing around and observe the relative speed with which the different oils ooze down the tubes.

And in the main museum, there were plenty of these classic doohickeys:

You just hope the kid before you didn't have lice or dirty ears.

Here we are in front of a replica of the world's first liquid-fueled rocket. I think the display said it was "one of the first rockets", which is not close to the truth. Solid rockets have existed for about a thousand years. But it was the very first liquid-fueled rocket. 

On the way home, we stopped in the fancy suburb of Newton to get ice cream at J.P. Licks. (There is a dire shortage of decent ice cream parlors in the Niskayuna area, so an ice cream stop was a primary objective of the trip.) J.P. Licks had excellent ice cream but it was very pricey and there was hardly anywhere to sit. Next door was a tailor shop that had this sewing machine in the window:

My mother had this very same sewing machine when I was a kid - she may still have it for all I know.