Saturday, October 25, 2014

Interchangeable Parts

If you had been standing by the roadside in Surrey, England in 1908, you might have caught a glimpse of three remarkable cars driving down the road.  The cars were all identical Cadillac automobiles, but they were certainly…different.

The worlds first racetrack, Brooklands, was conducting a test of a relatively radical new idea for automobiles: interchangeable parts.  Up to that time, each car had had hand-fitted parts made for that vehicle specifically.  Even two apparently identical vehicles had variations in their parts, and if one needed a part replaced, it required a skilled mechanic to alter and fit the part.

In 1908, the Royal Automobile Club sponsored a test for standardized parts.  While ten car companies were invited, only the Cadillac Motor Car Company showed up.  Three different Cadillac cars, painted three different colors, were dismantled and the parts placed in a single pile in the middle of a garage.  89 parts were randomly removed and replaced with new ones straight from the Cadillac storeroom in London.

Then, the mechanics reassembled three cars using only screwdrivers and wrenches.  The resulting cars were no longer very attractive, as each had doors, fenders, wheels, and hoods of oddly mismatched colors.  Then the three cars were driven 500 miles around the Brooklands track and the nearby streets of Surrey without a breakdown.  Cadillac was awarded the Dewar Prize, the automotive equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

This feat changed everything in the automobile industry.  Now, every car company had to rush to offer interchangeable parts.  I blame this on Napoleon.

Almost everyone in America knows that interchangeable parts are something that started with Eli Whitney and the production of guns for the US government.  I remember learning this in the fifth grade.  I think that was the last thing I learned that year, since shortly after that day in history class, I started to change my opinion of the relative ickiness of girls. 

(Actually, of course, the first true universally interchangeable parts were created when the first United States Congress convened in 1789.  There hasn’t been a pennyworth of difference among those idiots in the last 225 years.)

Eli Whitney was a fake: in 1808, he wanted the government contract so much that he claimed he could manufacture a large number of guns with interchangeable parts--and his claim seemed plausible, since he let Congress examine a few carefully selected muskets.  The congressmen took the muskets apart, piled up all the parts, stirred them around and then put the muskets back together.  Since they still worked, Congress gave Whitney the contract for 10,000 muskets.

There is only one way to truly create interchangeable parts—with machinery.  There is simply no way to rapidly duplicate precise parts by hand.  A skilled craftsman can slowly produce a limited number of parts possessing fairly close tolerances--and this is how Eli Whitney was able to fool the US government.  However, only machinery can rapidly turn out identical pieces and this form of technology did not exist when Whitney won the contract.  (This is why Whitney delivered the muskets years late, and none of them had interchangeable parts!)

In fact, not long after this, the ability to mass produce certain parts became a critical military requirement.  (And if necessity is the mother of invention, it follows that "a critical military requirement is the evil mother-in-law".)

Now, fast forward to 1810, when England was at war with Napoleons France.  (Ah, the good old days, when you could have a war with someone you could--even if only occasionally--actually like.)  The British government was suffering something resembling an embarrassment of riches.   The British navy was made up of 191 giant ships of the line, 245 frigates, and numerous other smaller warships--giving it over 860 ships altogether.  (And another 56 ships were being constructed.)

Not only was the navy large, it was damn good.  In several wars and countless battles, the British Navy had humiliated the navies of France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia, and Holland.  During the period from 1792-1812, the ships of His Majestys navy had fought in over 200 engagements and won all but 5.  (And all of those losses were in single ship-to-ship battles, none of them more recent than 7 years earlier.)

The inevitable consequence of this incredible string of victories was that an English victory was expected by not only the English, but by the captains and crews of the enemy ships the British fought.  With this attitude, it will not be surprising when I tell you that no fewer than 170 of the ships that made up the British Navy had been captured from other countries during combat. 

This huge navy was a virtual forest of masts and rigging in Portsmouth Harbor and all of this rigging had to be constructed and maintained for the navy.   Some of the required items were pulley blocks that enabled ships to raise and lower sails, steer ships, and lift heavy cargo.  These giant pulleys were all made of wood and no two of the hundreds of thousands of them in service were exactly the same.

Between the needs of new ships and replacing the blocks of older ships, the Admiralty office was purchasing an astonishing 100,000 new pulley blocks a year. 

Marc Brunel revolutionized the Portsmouth Block Mills at the harbor by introducing machinery run by conveyor belts, powered by two 30 hp. steam engines that automated the entire process of manufacturing the pulley blocks.  The forty-five separate machines that performed 22 processes could turn out standardized blocks in three sizes--and every piece was uniform and could be used to replace a defective part of the same-sized block.  

Not only was a superior block produced, but the labor savings were enormous.  Where 110 men had worked previously to produce a limited number of blocks of varying quality, ten men using the new machinery were capable of producing 130,000 blocks a year.

The nineteenth century saw the end of the great wooden ships, as first iron, then steel monsters replaced the beautiful great ships of the line.  Sails gave way to coal- and oil-fired ships.  Napoleon died, and (sadly) France and England became allies.  Brunels pulley blocks fared much better.  The machinery making them was still in use during World War II, only ceasing production in 1960.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Yonder's Your Education

Over eighty years ago, my mother was starting the first grade in school.  This was during the 1930s--and even worse, she lived on a dirt-poor farm in the panhandle of Texas.  An economically blighted area in the middle of the Dust Bowl, this was far from a good place to live during the Great Depression.  (Even today, the panhandle is not exactly a great place to live, but an excellent place to be from.  The "fromer" the better.)

During this time, Texas was in the midst of a drought so severe that every morning, farmers could go outside and watch their topsoil leaving for New England.  On one such day, an estimated 300,000,000 tons of sand blew all the way to Illinois and subjected Chicago to a dust storm so severe that it shut down the city.  A few days later, the city of New York was blanketed with snow dyed red from the iron rich sands of the Southwest.

Needless to say, it is rather doubtful that my mothers education was the most pressing issue for my grandparents.   Within a few years, they would lose their farm and be forced to seek employment in the nearby thriving metropolis of Plainview.

When the big day finally came, my mother was excited to start school.  Her parents were understandably busy, so she was to be enrolled in school by her brother, Joe.  Uncle Joe was twelve, and he carefully guided my mother from the farm to the edge of town.  Standing on a small hill, as he carefully pointed out the distant small schoolhouse to my mother, he gave her the only educational counseling she was ever to receive.

“Yonder's the school,” he said.  Then he turned and walked off in the opposite direction, leaving his little sister to fend for herself. 

I have been reminded of this little tidbit of family lore this last week, here at Enema U: the university has just created a new department in its constant quest to meet the needs of a student body that seems to be increasingly indifferent to damn near anything. 

The Department of Autodidact* Studies will provide individualized instruction to the student who hitherto has not felt the need to actually enroll in classes.   This will be a perfect fit for Enema U, since it has long since lost interest in either building or maintaining classrooms.  Almost as important, the department will do away completely with the need for meddlesome faculty, thus freeing up additional office space and resources for the ever expanding administration. 

Such a complex department will obviously need an experienced department head.  While an extensive national search was considered, thankfully, someone already on campus--with no apparent current duties whatsoever--has volunteered to take on the difficult job.  Principal among the new heads duties will be the annual chore of leading the assorted majors into the middle of the parking lot and carefully advising the students on their future academic careers.

“Yonder's the library,” he will cheerfully announce at the beginning of each year.  Then he will  probably return to his office to commence work on another round of outcomes assessments that will never be read.  (The new forms are much better than the old forms, as they ask you to numerically answer such burning questions as:  Of all the available flavors, what is your favorite color of the alphabet?)

Only the latest pedagogical tools will be used in this new department.  Textbooks will no longer be required, but each student will be issued a list of required T-shirts to be purchased the Starbucks Gift Shop, conveniently located at the site of what used to be laughingly called a bookstore.  Naturally, this will require higher lab fees.

Of course the administration expects great things from the new department, as not actually attending class seems to be one of the fastest growing trends in universities all over the country.  Though no student has actually requested the new department, that is to be expected since they have long since stopped asking for anything.

Students will be expected to maintain a high GPA.  Those failing to meet the mark will be automatically reassigned to the soon-to-be-created Department of Idiodactyl Studies.  While this new totally online department has not yet been opened, the university is working desperately to create racially-blended and gender-neutral avatars, in order to avoid reinforcing negative societal stereotypes. 

*Autodidact.  (n.) a self-taught person.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tool Time on the Brazos

Mike got his purchases out of the back of his pickup and carried them into the barn.  He had only gone to the hardware store for a new gas can for the chainsaw, but he'd never once in his life been able to leave a hardware store with just one item.  He wasn't even sure he trusted a man who could--any man who did real work could always find something he needed.

Barbara, his wife, had never understood the male fascination with hardware stores and had for years staunchly refused to accompany her husband on such trips.  The old rancher had tried to explain this to his wife.

"Honey," he said.  "You know how female Viagra is called 'jewelry'?"

Barbara didn't answer, but her eyes squinted until she was staring at her husband through narrow slits.  Oblivious to the danger, Mike continued.

"Well, a hardware store works the same way for a man."  Warming to his subject, the rancher went on.  "I've never understood why hardware stores don't sell jewelry.  Practical jewelry.  If you think about it, earrings are not that much different from putting a bone in your ear.  If you women have to hang something from your ears, why not make it something useful?"

"Such as?" his wife asked.  If Mike hadn't been so excited about his topic, he might have noticed that his wife's voice was about as cold as yesterday's coffee, perhaps almost as cold as their bedroom was likely to be that night.

"Well, how about a couple of screwdrivers?  One regular, one phillips?  Then if you needed one, you could..."  Mike stopped talking since his wife had turned and walked out of the barn.  The problem, Mike thought, was that women were just not practical.

The old rancher went to work on the new metal gas can.  Rummaging around in the barn, he found a spray paint can and painted both sides of the gallon can a uniform red.  Then, using a brush and a small can of black paint, he carefully labeled one side of the can, "Gasoline and Oil.  For Chainsaw Only."  On the other side, he wrote "Gasolina y Aceite.  Motosierra Solamente."

Mike suspected that there might be an accent mark in there somewhere, but he thought his only remaining ranch hand, Sergio, would probably understand it well enough.  At least he hoped so, since he really didn't want Sergio to burn up another chainsaw.  He thought briefly about sprinkling in a few accent marks--kind of like adding salt to stew--but since he had absolutely no idea where one might be needed, he decided to quit while he was ahead.

The old cowboy found a half-pint bottle of 2-cycle engine oil to pour into the can.  Then all he had to do was fill the can from one of the 5 gallon jerry cans of gas he kept in the metal tractor shed.

The old cowboy unscrewed the metal cap on the small can...and then stopped.  Under the can's lid was another, interior cap, fitted over the can's opening.  Evidently, this cap had been placed to keep the can air-tight during shipping and to prevent the interior of the can from rusting.  Mike tried to pry up the cap with his fingernails, but the cap refused to budge.

Mike produced several small screwdrivers and proceeded to try and pry up the interior cap.  Failing this, he used a ball peen hammer to drive a screwdriver under the rim.  While he was successful in prying up an edge of the cap, he could not free it from the can's spout.

Half an hour later, the rancher was sitting on the barn floor with the can between his knees and surrounded by an assortment of screwdrivers, old chisels, cold chisels, awls, files and even the odd power tool.  A few feet away, safely out of the line of fire, the rancher's dog lay on the floor with his head nestled on his paws as he watched his master struggle with the gas can.

After a can of penetrating oil failed to liberate the lid, the rancher decided to drill a hole through the middle of the metal cap, insert a large screw eye into the hole, then pull out the lid with a pair of water pump pliers.

When Barbara walked back into the barn, she was astonished to find her husband sitting on the floor, the can braced between his feet while he pulled on the pliers so hard his arms were trembling and his face was blue from the physical effort.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asked.

Mike dropped the pliers and looked up at his wife. 

"This damn can was made wrong," he said angrily.  "The morons who made it probably spot welded this inner lid in place.  Probably some idiot trying to get even for the Korean War."

"Let me see that."

Mike handed the can to his wife, who looked at the lid for few seconds.  Then, she grabbed the protruding screw eye and calmly unscrewed the interior lid from the can. 

Barbara handed the gas can back to her astonished husband with a smile that was not quite friendly but not completely mocking. 

"Just think," she said.  "I did it without a screwdriver in my ear."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

One Ship--Six Navies

During the American Civil War, the South was strangled by a seemingly impenetrable Union naval blockade.  Unable to ship cotton and tobacco out, the Confederates had no source of hard currency, but equally important, neither could they receive urgently needed imports.

Desperation is the evil mother-in-law of invention, and the South desperately tried a variety of techniques to break the Northern blockade: submarines, torpedoes, ironclads....the South tried them all.  One of the problems was that the South had few shipyards capable of building modern naval vessels, and the few she possessed were frequently attacked by the Yankee navy--so the Confederacy had to have its ships built in Europe, instead.

Though several European countries hoped the North would either lose the war, or at least suffer enough military losses to stunt the growth of this enfant terrible, it was against international law for neutral nations to sell war materiel to belligerent countries.  So the Confederates approached Napoleon III of France.  The thinking seemed to be that, as emperor, he couldn't break the law because he was the law.

Napoleon III had no problem skirting the law, but he wanted what we call today, "plausible deniability."  France would build two ship--supposedly for the Egyptian navy.  And what ships they were--twin-screw-equipped, steam-powered, iron monsters, with giant sled rams on their bows.  Capable of speeds of up to ten knots, and with heavy iron hulls, large cannons, and deadly bow rams--these ships were monsters that could easily break the American blockade of Southern ports.

Named Cheops and Sphynx, the two ships were all ready for delivery to the Confederates, when the United States discovered the plot and raised an official protest--so the ever-practical French simply sold the two ships elsewhere.  Denmark and Prussia were at war, so the French (being French) sold one of the ships to each country. 

The Cheops was renamed the Prinz Adalbert and was delivered to Prussia, while the Sphynx was renamed the Stærkodder.  By the time the ships were finally delivered, the war was over.  Sadly, the Prussian ship sat tied to a dock until she rotted, but the Stærkrodder, the Danish ship, had hardly begun her journey.

Though Denmark had accepted delivery of the ship, and was even conducting sea trials, the Danes haggled over the price.  This fiscal battle continued until the French finally, secretly, approached the Confederacy to see if they were still interested in the ship.  They were.

The ship quietly acquired a Confederate captain and crew, and while at sea, was rechristened the CSS Stonewall, and set sail for Portugal.  (This is not the CSS Stonewall Jackson:  that ship was a side-wheel riverboat.)

Along the way, two American warships either were scared off by the Stonewall, or were deliberately delayed by the Portuguese government--evidently in order to give the Stonewall a 24-hour  head start across the Atlantic.  There seems to be some confusion about the details, but Portugal and the US both decided to drop the incident after the Civil War, since one of the other "countries" involved no longer existed at that point.  There is little reason to argue over who left the barn door open after the horses have run off.

So, the Stonewall sailed to Cuba, in order to take on coal and water before continuing on to Port Royal, South Carolina, where it was hoped she break the Yankee blockade and cut off the supply line for General Sherman.  However, by the time the ship dropped anchor in Havana, the American Civil War was over.  The Confederate captain, in need of funds for himself and his crew, sold the ship to the Spanish government for $16,000 (presumably not in Confederate dollars).  (And, yes--that was a cheap price for a warship, even back then.)

The US demanded the ship, so the Spanish quickly avoided an international incident by selling the ship to the US Navy for the same price--$16,000.  The ship was sailed up the Potomac River and tied to a dock.  The US Navy eagerly inspected the vessel, but ultimately decided it had no real need for such a ship.  So the Stonewall was again sold--this time, to Japan.

Japan was in the midst of its own Civil War.  The last of the old Tokugawa Shogunate put $30,000 down and promised $10,000 on delivery, in order to obtain a modern warship to fight off the new Meiji Imperial Navy.  However, by the time the ship was actually delivered, the port was now in the hands of the Imperial Navy, which eagerly paid the remaining $10,000 and used the new ship, (now renamed the Kōtetsu) against its enemy, the original Japanese purchasers.  (To the reader: Have you lost count of the number of turnovers and sales, yet?)

The Kōtetsu was easily the most formidable ship of the Imperial Navy and sailed off to do battle with the remaining Shogunate navy at Hokkaido.   Attempting to retake the fortress of a ship, the Shogunate disguised a rebel ship by flying an American flag on it until it was close enough to ram the Kōtetsu.  Unfortunately, this tactic failed, since the deck of the Kōtetsu was nine feet lower than that of the ramming ship.  One by one, samurai dropped from the bow of the attacking ship onto the deck of the ironclad, only to be slaughtered by a modern Gatling gun.  (Never bring a sword to a machine gun fight!)

In the resulting engagement, the Battle of Hokodate, the Shogunate was destroyed.  Firmly in control of Japan, the Meiji Empire built its modern Imperial Navy around the Kōtetsu, now renamed the Azuma.  In later years, she became the flagship of Admiral Togo--who firmly believed that he was the reincarnation of Admiral Horatio Nelson.

But, that is another story. 

(Extra credit: How many times was the ship sold?  How many different names did it have?)