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Progress in Science
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Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

Feature Editorial
Progress in Science(EDIT8)

Most useful tools began as a crazy idea.

An Editorial Comment

Written by...

It was a chance comment I heard someone direct at no one in particular. "Isn't it amazing," he said "that human beings could have come up with something as clever as the modern automobile." He might just as well have mentioned airplanes or computers or robots or television or any of the other modern marvels that we have all too quickly come to accept as normal.

Fact is, we live in a time when we have some of the most technologically sophisticated pieces of machinery at our beck and call. It is easy to forget that these have only been part of our history for a very short time. To wonder at this is maybe not a bad idea. In fact, as I marvelled at man's ingenuity in creating these things, I got to thinking about how the process actually works.

We all realize of course that things like cars, computers, robots or television didn't just appear overnight. Nor were they created in their present form by one or two people. Most modern products are the culmination and combination of many small steps along the way. Take the automobile for instance. The very first step along that road was the invention of the wheel.

No one knows who or what led to that clever bit of technology, lost as it is in the mists of time. We do know that the Romans1 had it and the indigenous population in North America for example, did not2. Along with the two wheeled chariot, the four wheeled cart was already known in ancient times. Over time, there was a steady improvement of the cart design.

Wheels became lighter with the introduction of spokes and a hub. They became sturdier with the addition of an iron or steel ring or tire which helped to hold the wheels together as well as making them last longer. Hubs also improved as they were lubricated with ever better greases and oils and of course the wooden axles were replaced by iron and steel.

By the early 17th century, personal carriages had become quite sophisticated as had the stage coach which became a venerable institution 200 years later in North America as it helped to open up the American west. By the late 1800's city streets and country lanes both in Europe as well as North America were filled with carriages heading this way and that.

Most of these had one thing in common, they used horses for propulsion. Then came the next step, eliminate the horse. One of the first to attempt such a thing was a French inventor, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot who built a three-wheeled, steam-powered vehicle in 1771. This monster which only managed a little over 2 mph was easily outmaneuvered by the horse-drawn vehicles of the day so it didn't go much of anywhere.

The next attempt came a hundred years later when Amedee Bollee, also a Frenchman, built an improved 12-passenger steam car in 1873. It didn't fare much better. What was needed was a lighter, more powerful engine. Fortunately, such a thing had in fact already been invented... in 1673 by none other than Christiaan Huygens. Like most first attempts, this initial effort was pretty crude consisting of a piston in a cylinder along with some gunpowder.

Most of the devices created by Huygens and others during this time used the resulting explosion to create a vacuum which then produced the power. This was the reverse of engines developed later in which the explosion actually created power directly. Two Englishmen, John Barber and Robert Street were the first to file patents for this bit of cleverness in the 1790's.

From there on in, development carried on apace with many inventors adding their bit when we come to Etienne Lenoir. In 1860 he builds a pretty successful engine which he cobbles onto a three-wheeled wagon. Lenoir's engine was significant for several reasons. It used a combustible gas (hydrogen and coal gas) for fuel but more significantly he came up with a type of two stroke design which made the whole thing more practical.

The next characters in our story are Nikolaus Otto, Wilhelm Maybach, Gottfried Daimler and Karl Benz. In the late 1800's, they created the modern internal combustion engine3 and with it the automobile. Otto developed an engine that compressed the fuel mixture before igniting it. This produced a dramatic increase in power. His first effort was a two-stroke engine but he soon went on to build a four stroke motor. This design which is known as the Otto Engine, is still used in cars today.

In addition to the new design there was the switch to a liquid fuel—gasoline. This almost useless4 by-product of the oil refining business proved to be a dandy source of power. But first you had to vaporize the stuff at just the right time. To do this, Maybach developed a device called a carburetor. This was based on the concept of a perfume atomizer which in turn is associated with at least three men: Giovanni Battista Venturi, Daniel Bernoulli and Clemens Herschel.

Finally he had to ignite the mixture of air and gasoline. For this he used an electric spark. A device to do this, the eudiometric pistol, had already been demonstrated by Alessandro Volta in the 1700's. The point of all this is the fact that even to get this far, took a large number of discoveries by others. Also not every discovery was initially a complete success.

We could trace all the successive developments from wooden carriages without horses to our modern cars with their sleek bodies of plastic and steel. We could talk about the development of modern electronics without which none of today's chariots could function. The point is that it is all the result of many small steps including all those that didn't go anywhere.

This is true of all science. From time to time you will see some of history's thinkers denegrated because they got it wrong. We ourselves with hindsight can sometimes wonder why they didn't see it more clearly or why they missed the mark. It would be more useful to try and reconstruct how some of these people dreamed things that never were and said 'why not?'.

As our ancestors lifted rocks with brute strength alone, what persuaded one of them to grab a pole, drape it over a smaller rock and create a lever? What made some people look up at the sky and decide that the solid ground on which they were standing was in fact part of a ball that whipped around the sun? Where did early man get the courage to climb into a hollowed-out vessel and trust that it would float on water?

I for one have always found it fascinating to look at a discovery and try to understand the process that led to it. Often when I do, I find myself awestruck by the brilliance and persistence involved. Most discoveries take an enormous amount of faith and courage to bring about. Naysayers are never in short supply and include people who should know better.

The New York Times in an editorial suggested that Robert Goddard, father of modern rocketry, didn't even possess an elementary knowledge of physics. The medieval church warned all those who believed in an earth whirling through empty space that God would punish their heresy. Louis Pasteur's theory of germs was called a "ridiculous fiction" by Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse in 1872.

The list is endless and anyone who wants to browse the internet will easily find many more. If you combine that kind negative reaction with the fact that for the pioneer there is no assurance that his ideas even have merit, it's a miracle that man has progressed at all. Something to think about. Three cheers for the creative mind!

  1. The Romans made very effective use of the two-wheeled chariot although they didn't invent it. That honor generally goes to the people of ancient Sumeria, who are thought to have come up with this nifty gadget around 3500 BC.

  2. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, wheeled carts were evidently unknown in the "New World".

  3. For a quick overview of different engines look here.

  4. Everybody at the time knew that oil was refined for two products, lubricants and lamp oil. Gasoline was useless and dangerous!

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