Thursday, February 22, 2007

Me and My Dyson

I have just one more junk post before getting back to the important issue of Renaissance engineers. It's my vacuum cleaner.

There two aspects of my life that seem to foil the good intentions of most vacuum cleaners. I have a large long-haired dog (a Belgian Groenendael to be exact) and some sort of tightly woven Berber rugs that just trap lint and hair. Most vacuum cleaners don't cut it. The Dyson does. I'm not sure if my success is due to the Dyson's suction--which is prolific--or due to the very effective beater bar design.

What I like most about the Dyson is its engineering. It's a great product. It not only does what it's supposed to but it makes standard operation and maintenance a joy. Emptying the cannister is a snap and even cleaning and replacing the filter is quite straight forward.

The Dyson does, however, require some more detailed maintenance. The Groenendael fur, for example, tends to choke the beater bar and eventually works its way into the belt drive. This common event has burned the belts out of other vacuums but the Dyson has a clutch which will free-wheel the beater. The noise is terrific but nothing breaks. Every so often I have to cut the fur off the beater bar. Other designs would send me scurrying for some odd-ball screwdriver design (why doesn't everyone just use Robertson?). The Dyson, however, is very accommodating to the most common of impromptu fastener removers: the penny. Anticipating that users will likely be using coins to remove components from the device is just good engineering.

Other people have criticized Dyson designs because they don't feel like premium brands. They're not heavy; they don't contain a variety of ornate cast and forged metal pieces; they don't belong in a Victorian museum of the future nor in an exhibit of advanced Soviet technology. They are light and made of plastic. But this design also reveals some engineering brilliance. The vacuum is great and commands premium prices but I suspect that there is tremendous margin room. Not only is the thing designed to do what it is supposed to but it is designed to weather the price wars of inevitable fast followers... although patent protection seems to be doing a good job.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Groves and A Furry Roof: My Home in 100 Years

I thought that I would spend a few moments engaging in some retropaleofuturology i.e., creating a vision of the future that is unlikely to ever occur and will seem ridiculous in the very near future. But here goes...

I--like almost everyone I talk to--am fascinated with climate change (it seems that global warming is too specific a concept). It has become a popular issue; it's a political issue; and it's a scientific issue. But when will it become an engineering issue? Engineers don't really care whether it exists or not. They only care about when there is sufficient financial justification to create artefacts that address the market demand for some climate change tchotchke.

There are two types of possible engineering projects. There are Big Projects and there are Small Projects. Big Projects are, well, big. Think Project Apollo: big money, big bureaucracy, and big toys. I'm not sure what Project Apollo for climate change will look like. Perhaps we will float some sort of massive solar reflector in orbit. Or maybe we will recreate Pinatubo eruptions on a regular basis. Whatever it is, it will be big.

Small Projects are far more interesting. They represent the type of engineering that we see every day but that we rarely think about. Why, for example, am I driving low curb-weight vehicle with a small engine that uses far less gasoline than the behemoths of the 1970s? Or why do I have a high efficiency forced-air natural gas furnace rather than an oil-burning boiler? The answer to both of these questions is small projects--those little bits of technology that progress in an evolutionary manner but have a dramatic impact on a particular issue.

So what how will these small projects effect the look of my house. Here are some thoughts:
  1. My house will still be there. It's 100 years old now and it's still quite an interesting and comfortable building. The features that make it quaint will contribute to its longevity. I also suspect that many of the internal accessories will be there as well. The oak doors with ornamental door knobs still work as well as they did for the first Victorian residents. I'm sure that next century's owner will enjoy them as well.
  2. It will have a furry roof. I think that Corbusier once suggested that a particular church should be covered with fur. A furry roof has some tremendous passive benefits. It's light weight and high volume (i.e., good insulator) but it also has a very high surface area and responds physically to seismic or wind impetus. I have no idea how to make fur that can generate power from the wind and sun. I'll let the scientists and engineers figure it out.
  3. There will be no front lawn. Instead of a lawn there will be a small plantation of trees or maybe some sort of woody stemmed plant such as bamboo. These trees will probably be bio-engineered to grow rapidly. On a regular basis the owners will have to cut these trees down and put them at the curbside for pickup. These trees will be cut, bundled, and pressed into carbon blocks that are then locked away in old mines.
And that's it. No flying cars. Just groves and furry roofs.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Maps, Genres, and Engineers

It seems that many early engineers had an important role in creating maps. Ramelli, for example, was captured by surveying and mapping the fortifications of La Rochelle. The importance of mapping probably extended beyond just military applications.

Buisseret notes four different ways that mapping was an important part of the early modern era. It was used for 1) military and naval purposes; 2) political and judicial reasons such demarcating various jurisdictions; 3) economic and financial reasons; and 4) ecclesiastical structure. In an era when the church held such tremendous power, the borders of different diocese was an important consideration.

Maps and Italian engineers became popular at approximately the same time. Henri II, for example, used maps as a military tool. He made a suggestion to the city hall of Paris in September of 1550 that Girolamo Bellarmato could map the extents of Paris. This map could then serve as an important input for ongoing planning activities.

The other Valois had different views of maps. Charles IX, for example, imprisoned a cartographer who presented him with a map of his country. He considered the map to be a crucial instrument of war and deemed the cartographer's actions as a dangerous breach of intelligence.

Henry IV was perhaps the first great admirer of maps in France. He collected them and even executed few (along with fortification designs) himself. Buisseret notes that creating maps was an important job for the Ingeniurs du Roi. He notes that 14 of Errard's plans of the towns of Picardy are maintained by the British Library. He also notes the relative limited number of engineers in France at the time. In 1597 they number four; In 1611 they were six. Goodman notes that there were only six royal engineers in Iberian Spain during the same era.

Merriman notes a similar trend among the Engineers of England. Like France, England imported a large number of Italian engineers. They were engaged in tasks such as the creation of fortifications and with mapping various military, political, economic, and ecclesiastical sites. Merriman points to the 1540s as the era when true maps emerged in England. They were created from a bird's eye view, were measurable, and included a scale. Not all maps of the era met these standards. There were still a large number of maps created from some sort of artificial vantage point.

There seems to be some tension here in the creation of maps. A similar sort of tension is evident in the machine books. Critics have argued that the designs are somehow inarticulate or insincere since the depicted machines couldn't actually be built. They lacked scales or the type of working drawings that a craftsman would require (provided that a craftsman of the era could actually interpret the thing!). The machine designs of Ramelli and Besson were still stuck in an older style of representation that depended on artificial views and linear perspective. They had not yet explored the potential of the measured view. This same sort of confrontation was going on with mapping at about the same time. This theme is also explored by Svetlana Alpers.

I am struck by something in this discussion of both maps and machine books. Everything was there to create good maps. There was the mathematical theory, the instruments (e.g., Besson's Cosmographe), and a diversified work force able to create them (e.g., the Ingenieurs du Roi). So why didn't we see measured maps and descriptive construction drawings. I guess the representational media just hadn't developed yet. I'm reminded of Galison's concept of the trading zone where Experimentalists, Theorists, and those guys who build apparatus all interact to create some kind of truth. The case of mapping is different. There was the apparatus, the theory, and the workers. But there was only slow closure. What was missing was a standard visual media or genre to describe the findings and structure the work of these engineers.

Buisseret. 1992. Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps in France before the Accession of Louis XIV. In Buisseret (Ed.) Monarchs, ministers, and maps : the emergence of cartography as a tool of government in early modern Europe. Pg. 99-123.
Merriman, Marcus. 1983. Italian military engineers in England in the 1540s. In Tyacke (Ed.) English Map Making.
The First 150 Years

Wiley's (first) corporate history contains some interesting comments on both handbooks and the theatra machinarum:

"It was, in fact, this change in technique that led to the replacement of apprenticeship by the more effective methods of the classroom--that is, to the birth of the modern engineering school. Wiley's story and that of American education have developed simultaneously." (pg. 111) The author is, of course, referring to the rise of the academic textbook and the handbook.

The book also contains some very interesting comments on the history of the TM:

"But Leonardo held his ideas in secret as part of his 'stock in trade,' whereas the publication of the notebooks of his successors not only marked a new era in the exchange of professional knowledge but also the advent of the technical publisher in the mechanical field. It is only in comparatively recent years that Leonardo's wonderful drawings and notes have been seen, but in 1579 one of the first of these machinery notebooks, that by Jacques Besson, 'Theaters of Machinery,' was published in France. Remelli's [sic] famous 'Diverse and Artificial Machines' followed in 1588, with a Paris imprint. It is a wonderful and beautiful book illustrating and describing water wheels and pumps--all the machines of an age when man and animal power were supplemented only by the uncertain gifts of wind and water. Zonca's Italian work of 1607 was another of these pioneer machine publications of the pioneer technical publisher." (pg. 124)