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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 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 the first all-electronic digital computer, “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.

8 comments; last comment on 12/10/2016
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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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December 1, 1743 – The Birth of Martin Heinrich Klaproth

Posted December 01, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: December 1

On December 1, 1743, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, the chemist who discovered uranium, zirconium, and cerium, was born. Originally intended to be a clergyman, Klaproth attended Wernigerode Latin School until 1759 when he dropped out and became an apprentice in an apothecary shop. Klaproth worked until he became a journeyman, eventually moving to Hannover and then Berlin, where he began to practice chemistry.

While studying chemistry on the side, he supported himself by managing a deceased friend’s apothecary shop, until 1780 when his new wife’s wealth allowed him to go out on his own. This is where things begin to get interesting for Klaproth. He expanded his lecturing on chemistry and became a Pharmaceutical Assessor at a Berlin medical school.

In 1789, Klaproth discovered zirconium by recognizing “the presence… in the ore zirconia.” In the same year he discovered uranium, “in a precipitate of pitchblende.” While Klaproth, himself, did not isolate these elements, they were later isolated by Jöns Jacob Berzelius in 1824 and Eugène-Melchior Péligot in 1841, respectively.

In 1793, Klaproth “elucidated the composition” of strontium. Then, in 1795 Klaproth rediscovered titanium and named it, in addition to rediscovering chromium in 1798, after he became a member of the Royal Society of London. He also confirmed the discovery of tellurium and beryllium in 1798. Then in 1803, Klaproth discovered “cerium as the oxide (ceria),” in the same year it was identified by Jöns Jacob Berzelius and Wilhelm Hisinger, who were working collaboratively.

Towards the end of his career, between the years of 1807 and 1810, Klaproth published a five-volume chemical dictionary with F.B. Wolff. These five volumes were followed by a four-volume supplement, some published after January 1, 1817, when Klaproth died of a stroke.

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November 21, 1782 – The Death of Jacques Vaucanson

Posted November 21, 2016 3:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: November 21

On November 21, 1782, Jacques Vaucanson, renowned for his automata, died after an eventful existence. From childhood, Vaucanson is said to have been fascinated with mechanics. In fact, it is rumored that his story begins by recreating a clock he’d repeatedly seen while accompanying his mother to confession. Vaucanson’s story continued to intersect with religion as he was bolstered by a monk who was actually his math teacher. He even became a novice in the religious order of Minimes in Lyon.

Vaucanson left the religious life when he was condemned by a visitor for whom he created “androids, which would serve dinner and clear the tables.” Afterward, the high-ranking visitor reportedly declared that “he thought Vaucanson’s tendencies ‘profane,’ and ordered that his workshop be destroyed.”

Luckily for Vaucanson, Paris offered a respite from the criticism, as well as a chance to create enough automata to go on tour. On tour he found a financial backer to support him. Shortly after the tour ended, Vaucanson dreamed up his next creation in an illness-induced delirium. The creation, a life-size flute player capable of playing twelve different melodies, mimicked “the very means by which a man would make [music]. There was a mechanism to correspond to every muscle.”

Vaucanson followed up the flutist with a pipe-and-drum figure and his most famous creation: a mechanical duck.

The duck could eat from Vaucanson’s hand, then swallow, digest, and excrete the food’s waste. The onlookers were amazed by the lifelike creature, which drank water and quacked—just like a real duck.

Having caught the eye of Louis XV with his excrement-producing duck, Vaucanson was offered the position of Inspector of Silk Manufacture. During his time in this position, Vaucanson managed to create an automated loom. Unfortunately, his success ended there as the silk workers revolted. The revolt was suppressed, but not without sufficient loss of life that many blamed Vaucanson for—it didn’t help that he had responded to their criticisms of his machine by building “a loom manned by a donkey, in order to prove, as he said, that ‘a horse, an ox or an ass can make cloth more beautiful and much more perfect than the most able silk workers.’” The result was that Vaucanson ran away, as he had from his religious life. Perhaps, it can be seen as him coming full circle because he escaped in the garb of a Minime monk.

Vaucanson’s automata are still referenced today as an essential step toward the industrial revolution—especially his automated loom and his ever-memorable duck.

2 comments; last comment on 11/21/2016
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