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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".

April 19, 1906—The Death of Nobel Prize Laureate Pierre Curie

Posted April 19, 2017 3:00 PM by MaggieMc

Thinking back to science class, Curie is a familiar name. Marie Curie is a favorite subject in many courses, especially due to organizing mobile X-ray teams during World War I. Her husband Pierre Curie, who died in a street accident on April 19, 1906, is sometimes seen as an afterthought despite the Curies being jointly awarded the 1903 Nobel Peace Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for Becquerel’s discovery of “spontaneous radioactivity” and the Curies’ subsequent research on the phenomena.

Together, the Curies received half of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1898, they announced the discovery of radium and polonium by fractionation of pitchblende after what Curie’s Nobel Prize biography describes as “conditions of much hardship—barely adequate laboratories” and “having to do much teaching in order to earn their livelihood.”

The Curie’s later investigation into the “properties of radium and its transformation products” formed much of the basis for further research in nuclear physics and chemistry.

Unlike his wife, Pierre Curie was a Paris native, born to a doctor and his wife. Curie received his early schooling at home before gaining his licentiateship in physics in 1878 from the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne. Beginning in 1882, he functioned as a demonstrator in the physics laboratory. Then, in 1895, he was awarded a doctorate of science and was appointed professor of physics.

Prior to his work with his wife, whom he married in 1895, Pierre Curie studied crystallography with his brother Paul-Jacques Curie, discovering piezoelectric effects, or “the appearance of a positive charge on one side of certain non-conducting crystals, and negative charge on the opposite side when the crystals are subjected to mechanical pressure.” According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, in 1880, the brothers compressed certain crystals, including quartz tourmaline, and Rochelle salt, producing a voltage on the surface of the crystal.

Later, he focused on magnetism, discovering that “magnetic properties of a given substance change at a certain temperature,” which is now known as the Curie point.

On April 19, 1906, Curie was “run over by a dray in the rue Dauphine in Paris… and died instantly.” His complete works were published posthumously in 1908. After his death, his wife Marie won a second 1911 Nobel Peace Prize for producing radium as a pure metal in 1910. Their daughter Irene won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband Frédéric Joliot “in recognition of their synthesis of new radioactive elements.”

2 comments; last comment on 04/20/2017
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February 17, 1864—The Hunley Sinks the Housatonic

Posted February 17, 2017 12:00 AM by Hannes

On this day in 1864, the pioneering Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley rammed and sank the USS Housatonic during the US Civil War. She was the first combat submarine to successfully sink an enemy warship.

The Hunley was the third prototype submarine developed by businessman, lawyer, and Louisiana state legislator Horace Lawson Hunley. Hunley’s first design, Pioneer, was intentionally destroyed ahead of the Union invasion of New Orleans in 1862. Hunley and his co-inventors then built the 36-foot hand-cranked American Diver, but this vessel sank during a storm in Mobile Bay in February 1863.

Begun weeks after the sinking of American Diver, the H.L. Hunley was much more successful. The 40-foot vessel was manufactured from a cylindrical iron boiler. A seven-man crew turned a hand-cranked propeller, while an additional officer steered and navigated. Hunley had two water ballast tanks, each with a seacock exposed to the open water, at either of her tapered ends. Crew members could raise the vessel by opening the seacocks and lower it via a hand pump. Two hatch covers fitted with watertight gaskets allowed the crew entry and exit through the top. Hunley’s designers attempted to solve the problem of airflow using a simple “snorkel box,” but this never worked as intended. Even without the box, the sub could stay submerged for up to two hours. Like most early submersibles, Hunley’s compartment was extremely cramped and only had space for her crew to crank the propeller, and lighting was provided by a single candle.

The Hunley received private funding for her construction and was successfully tested in Mobile, but the Confederate military seized her from her inventors in Charleston, SC in August 1863. From this point, the Hunley’s history is marred with tragic and sometimes ironic blunders. Later in August, her new Confederate captain accidentally stepped on the vessel’s diving plane control while preparing to make a test dive. The Hunley dove with one of the hatches open, killing five of her eight crew. Three months later, she failed to surface after a mock attack, killing the entire crew and inaugurating Horace Hunley as an inventor killed by his own work.

Finally, on the night of February 17, 1864, the Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic, a 12-gun sloop-of-war participating in the Union blockade of Charleston. She rammed a torpedo fitted to a 17-foot iron spar into the Housatonic’s hull, then reversed course to engage a 150-foot detonation rope. The Housatonic exploded and quickly sank but lost only five of her crew of 150. The Hunley’s fate has never been conclusively determined, but she never returned to Charleston Harbor. Treasure hunters repeatedly attempted to locate and recover her hull in the years following the sinking, but it wasn’t until 1995 that a submersible located the Hunley buried in sediment, and she was raised and recovered in 2000.

For years historians believed the Hunley sank en route to her naval station, but her wreck was located on the seaward side of the Housatonic, leading to a new theory positing that she was critically damaged by her own torpedo. If true, this would be a sadly fitting end to the life of a vessel marked by innovative engineering as well as tragic irony. For an excellent resource on the Hunley’s design, actions, and recovery, check out Friends of the Hunley.

2 comments; last comment on 02/18/2017
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January 25, 1947 — The First Electronic Game is Patented

Posted January 25, 2017 1:00 PM by MaggieMc
Pathfinder Tags: January 25

Nowadays, many of us Millennials take our video and computer games for granted—they’re easily downloaded onto our smartphones, and there’s so many available we could never play them all. While I wouldn’t characterize myself as a ‘gamer’—in fact, I’m awful at most video games—even I can’t help but appreciate the work of Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann, who, on this day in engineering history, patented the very first electronic game. Goldsmith and Mann’s 1947 patent covered the “Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.” This device, according to some, does not represent the first video game because it wasn’t technically played on a video device; however, it does mark a significant point in the path to modern video games.

The point of the game, as described in the patent, “was to hit targets, like pictures of airplanes that would be manually placed on the [cathode ray] tube, using the beam” which the player could control using knobs. And, as Popular Mechanics notes, “Even in 1947 people understood that every good video game needed explosions, with the patent reading, ‘the game can be more spectacular… by making a visible explosion of the cathode ray beam take place when the target is hit.’”

One of the only reports of a prototype comes from Bill Brantley who later taught physics with Goldsmith at Furman University. He recalled Goldsmith demonstrating the device for him, and explaining “if you turn these knobs and dials, you could make a little beam move across the image orthicon… and then by turning these other dials and knobs, you could hit the various little targets.” The fact that this product never made it past the prototype stage, and as a result never gained more recognition, could be due to the lack of funds of Allen B. DuMont Laboratory, Goldsmith’s employer. Regardless, the 1947 invention is impressive for its time.

Do you think Goldsmith and Mann’s Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device should be considered the “grandfather of video games?”

Image Credit to Thomas T. Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann’s U.S. Patent #2455992

6 comments; last comment on 01/26/2017
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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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