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"On This Day" In Engineering History

Tune in to find out about significant engineering events that took place "on this day".

December 23, 1822—The Birth of Wilhelm Bauer

Posted December 23, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 23 June 20 submarines

On December 23, 1822, Bavarian inventor and engineer Sebastian Wilhelm Valenin Bauer was born. Bauer, the son of a Bavarian sergeant-major, contributed significantly to furthering the design of hand-powered submarines. Originally, Bauer had been apprenticed to a turner, but left that trade to join the Bavarian artillery at sixteen. It was during his time in the artillery that Bauer is said to have gained his knowledge of mathematics. It was also when Bauer was given the chance to study the movement of seals—it was these seals that inspired Bauer’s first submarine design, Brandtaucher. In fact, Brandtaucher had a distinct seal-like look to it.

The test of Brandtaucher was eventful. According to an obituary in Volume 20 of “Engineering: An Illustrated Weekly Journal,” the first nine submarine trips went smoothly, but during the tenth, the poor quality of the materials and lack of funding revealed itself as it “sprang a leak” and “sank to the bottom of the Baltic.” Reports of the resulting events vary, according to the same Engineer obituary, Bauer and two sailors spent “six hours… in the almost hermetically sealed compartment of the ship, which was filled with compressed air, and into which the water could not enter. Fortunately, a happy idea struck Bauer in this emergency. He thought that if he were able to suddenly open an exit to the greatest quantity of compressed air, it would rush out with great force... At the proper moment Bauer opened the hatch and the three were forced upwards like, as Bauer expressed it, so many corks of champagne bottles, arriving safely at the surface of the water.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica goes on to say, “Bauer and his two assistants escaped from a depth of 60 feet” and emerged “after 7 ½ hours below, in the midst of their own funeral services.” The second depiction seems less likely to have occurred as described, but the story lends an air of excitement to Bauer’s experimentations. This excitement seems to have existed at the time as well because this stunt caught the attention of both King Louis of Bavaria and Prince Albert of England, who were said to have patronized him so he was able to recreate Brandtaucher.

In 1855, Bauer built a “52-foot iron submarine” that carried a crew of 11, “4 of whom worked a treadmill that drove a screw propeller.” This craft, sponsored by Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, made between 120 and 134 successful dives. However, Bauer reportedly “did not comply with the demands of Russian officials” and “had almost to fly from Russia under the protection of the Bavarian ambassador.”

Later, Wilhelm Bauer “effected the raising of the steamer Ludwig, sunk in the Lake of Constance” along with raising other wrecked ships from the ocean floor. Perhaps Bauer would have continued this had he not developed gout which “paralyzed [him] and deprived [him] of speech.” Bauer died at the age of 53 in Munich, Germany on June 20, 1875.

Image Credit for Wilhelm Bauer’s Portrait.

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December 14, 1911—The Birth of Hans von Ohain

Posted December 14, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 14 March 13

On December 14, 1911, in Dessau, Germany, German-American physicist Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain was born, beginning a lifetime of contributions to the jet engine. In fact, Ohain was the designer of the first operational jet engine.

Ohain received his Ph.D. in Physics and Aerodynamics from the Georg August University of Göttingen in 1935, after only four years, rather than the usual seven. After graduating, Ohain joined Ernst Heinkel’s manufacturing firm where he “developed a theory” regarding turbo jet engines. It was not until 1936 that Ohain patented this theory, which he bench tested in 1937. The liquid-fueled engine, named the HeS 3B, had its first successful flight on August 27, 1939 on the Heinkel manufactured HC-178 airplane.

While this successful flight is what designates Ohain as the “designer of the first operational jet engine,” the design used a “centrifugal compressor,” which was “inherently less efficient than one using an axial-flow compressor… It was a turbojet of this type, designed by Anselm Franz, that powered the Me 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter aircraft [first flown July 18, 1942].” (You can learn more about Anselm Franz in our Great Engineers & Scientists Blog.)

In 1947, Ohain left Germany for the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. Ohain worked at the Aerospace Research Laboratory (ARL) and the Air Force Aerospace Propulsion Laboratory (AFAPL); he later became the chief scientist of each, in 1963 and 1975, respectively.

During his time in America, Ohain conducted a “survey study of trends and research objectives in the field of energy conversion and propulsion,” and is credited with “more than twenty U.S. patents”—compared to his fifty German patents. Prior to his death on March 13, 1998, Ohain received a number of awards, and, in 1990, the University of Dayton honored him by establishing four graduate fellowships in his name in aerodynamics.

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December 9, 1937 – Death of Nobel Prize Laureate Gustaf Dalén

Posted December 09, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 9

Born on November 30, 1869, Gustaf Dalén grew up with the intention of taking over his father’s farm, until Gustaf de Laval, another Swedish inventor, realized his potential and convinced him to attend the Chalmers Institute at Gothenburg. Evidently, “Dalén’s inventiveness first showed in his early days… when he built a threshing machine powered by an old spinning wheel. He contrived a device to indicate the butterfat content of milk.” It was this beginning that led Dalén to winning the Nobel Peace Prize many years later for “his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys.”

Coastline safety, and the lighting that provided it, had been a consistent issue for countries like Sweden which boasts a long coastline and countless islands. Dalén’s solution for this problem was groundbreaking and significantly increased the efficiency of coastal lighting. Previously, maritime lighting had utilized petroleum gas, which “had to be burned in flashes lasting about six seconds, and with the valving system then in use, one liter of gas provided 50 flashes.”

Dalén’s system could take one liter of acetylene and provide “several thousand short but brilliant flashes. The shorter flashes permitted a larger coding alphabet for the navigation signals.” He also developed a “solar valve, or Soventil,” that would turn the marine lighting system off at sunrise and back on in the evening. This ensured that lights could operate automatically, and additionally, they only needed to be inspected once per year at most. In addition, the cost of Dalén’s lighting system was also significantly reduced.

Two months prior to being awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physics, Dalén was seriously injured and permanently blinded in an accidental explosion during an experiment. Despite his blindness, after recovering from his injuries, Dalén continued to develop products and conduct experiments.

Image Credit for “Dalen, with his invention the automatic sun valve, or Solventil” goes to Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

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December 8, 2001 – The Death of Betty Holberton

Posted December 08, 2016 1:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 8

On December 8, 2001, Betty Holberton died in Rockville, Maryland. Holberton, born Francis Elizabeth “Betty” Snyder, is most widely known for her role as one of the ENIAC’s six programmers.

The ENIAC was one of the first all-electronic digital computers, “a huge machine of forty black 8-foot panels,” that required the programmers to “laboriously [set] the switches and cables” in order to “route the data and program pulses through the machine.” The U.S. Army funded this project at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II as an extension of the work being done by eighty women at the UPenn Moore School of Engineering, where they calculated ballistic trajectories. From the eighty original female “computers,” Holberton and five others were selected to work on ENIAC. (You can learn more about these women in our Woman of the Week blog.)

According to the New York Times, colleagues recall Holberton as “particularly adept at figuring out the best path for guiding the complex calculations through the electronic labyrinth of the ENIAC. Frequently, these insights came to her overnight.” Jean J. Bartic, another ENIAC programmer described Holberton further, saying, “Betty had an amazing logical mind, and she solved more problems in her sleep than other people did awake.”

Holberton had ended up at the Moore School of Engineering because she had chosen to attend the University of Pennsylvania for journalism, hoping it would offer her the opportunity to travel. However, following her work on ENIAC, Holberton instead worked on the Univac with two ENIAC designers, John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly. It is said that “[w]hile working on the Univac, Mrs. Holberton did some of her most innovative work. She developed a program for sorting and merging large data files, which at the time were stored on reels of magnetic tape.”

Holberton’s career didn’t stop there, in 1953, she joined the Navy’s Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the David Taylor Model Basin, and in 1959, as Chief of the Programming Research Branch at the lab, she helped develop the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL). While Holberton, and other critics, recognized this as a flawed language, Holberton supported the place COBOL held as a steppingstone for other languages.

1997 was a particularly big year for Holberton as she was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, along with the other ENIAC programmers, won the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award, and received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society.

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December 5, 1848 – President Polk Sparks the California Gold Rush

Posted December 05, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 5

On December 5, 1848, American President James K. Polk confirmed that large amounts of gold had been discovered in California. He is quoted as saying, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service.” This statement is widely regarded as the “spark” for the ’49 gold rush.

While it was nearly a year earlier on January 24, 1848 that James Wilson Marshall found flakes of gold in the American River, the hype that characterized the era did extend to the east until after President Polk’s address.

For American engineering, this day marks not only the “start” of the gold rush from the east, but also the beginning of American engineering being recognized on the global stage. According to Ronald H. Limbaugh, “Engineering as a profession was still in infancy at the mid-nineteenth century; those [Americans] who called themselves engineers were usually pragmatic, seat-of-the-pants technicians and mechanics with little former education.” This was in contrast to the engineers of Europe who looked down on the American “practical engineers” because their brand of engineering was not as “grounded in theoretical science and mathematics.”

All of this changed thanks to the “ingenuity and innovation” of American mining technology. In 1869, Rossiter Raymond, the nation’s second commissioner of mining statistics, noted “with pride that European metallurgists were now coming to the United States to learn from Americans, rather than the other way around.”

Many of the innovations attributed to the gold rush were not original; instead they were adaptation of “existing machines and methods to local conditions.” The process of hydraulic mining is one notable example of a process reinvented and altered into a “distinctly American process.”

Hydraulic mining, which uses “a powerful jet of water to dislodge minerals present in unconsolidated material,” was developed in bits and pieces across the mines of the west. The first successful nozzle is credited to Edward E. Matteson; however, his design was later improved on. This same fast-moving innovation characterized the period.

3 comments; last comment on 12/06/2016
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