Snow Blowers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 29th, 2014

Technology 101

If you try to Push or Lift too much Snow you can Wrench your Back, Give yourself a Hernia or Have a Heart Attack

It’s funny, isn’t it?  How much we love to see a white Christmas.  Nothing brings a bigger smile on our face than to see a white blanket out of our windows during the Christmas holiday.  It’s so pretty.  Pristine.  And pure.  Just like the true meaning of Christmas.  But once Christmas comes and goes and that white stuff is still out there our feelings change.  It’s no longer pretty, pristine and pure.  It’s just more of that white [deleted expletive] that we have to shovel.

If you have a detached garage you’re probably no fan of the snow.  Because with every snow fall you have hours of work ahead of you.  To shovel the front sidewalk so the city doesn’t fine you.  The sidewalk up to your mailbox for the mail carrier.  So he or she doesn’t slip and die on your property.  And then that long driveway.  From the approach in the street (so you don’t get stuck in the loose snow there) all of the way into your backyard and to that detached garage.  Over an hour by hand if the snow isn’t too deep.  Or you can let the snow stay there.  Melt a little during the day.  Freeze a little at night.  So you can slip on it and fall.  Breaking your hip.

Of course that snow shoveling would be quicker if you had a shovel as wide as the driveway.  But if we did we would never be able to lift the snow in it.  Because snow is heavy.  And if you try to push or lift too much of it you can wrench your back, give yourself a hernia or have a heart attack.  Which is why we use snow shovels much smaller than the width of the driveway.  It’ll take a lot more time to shovel the snow off it.  But our odds are greatly reduced for getting a wrenched back, hernia or heart attack.

The Two-Stage Snow Blower is not very Maneuverable but it can move through Deep Snow and throw it a Long Way

Snow is heavy.  And the wetter it is the heavier it is.  And the greater risks there are shoveling it.  Which is why God gave us the snow blower.  Or, rather, gave us Robert Carr Harris who gave us the snow blower in 1870.  Which has evolved into two basic machines today.  The single-stage snow blower.  And the 2-stage snow blower.  One of which is ideal for around the house.  The single-stage snow blower.  While the other is ideal for bigger jobs.  Where we have to move a lot more snow than what just falls around our house.  Though there are homeowners who use a 2-stage snow blower.  Even though a single-stage would be more appropriate.

A 2-stage snow blower can be a beast.  Taking up the footprint of a riding lawnmower.  It’s big.  And heavy.  Too heavy for most people to push through the snow.  Which is why these are typically self-propelled.  Requiring a bigger engine.  And a complicated gear box.  To divide the power between the ‘throwing’ function and the ‘propelling’ function.  The throwing function has two stages.  An auger in the front that turns slowly (requiring more gearing) to eat into the snow and pull it towards the center.  At the center is an impeller that turns much faster than the auger .  As the snow is slowly pushed into the fast-spinning impeller it throws the snow into and out of a directional discharge chute at a fast speed.  Throwing it a great distance.

It takes a fairly large engine to spin the auger, the impeller and the drive wheels.  And it takes a pretty complicated (and large and heavy) gear box to provide various rotational speeds for the various components.  As well as a large frame to hold these components, the drive wheels, controls, safety interlocks, oil and fuel.  Making the two-stage snow blower not that nimble or maneuverable.  Which isn’t a problem if you’re walking back and forth over a long driveway.  But it can be a big problem on a sidewalk with a turn or a curve in it.  For turning these beasts can take some muscle.  Muscle that we apply with our feet on a slippery surface.  Even after we’ve already cleared the deep snow off with the snow blower.  For the auger does not come into contract with the pavement.  Meaning it doesn’t clear away the snow down to the pavement.  But it can move through deep snow and throw it a long way.  Making it ideal for big jobs.

The Advantage of a 2-Cycle Engine is a High Power-to-Weight Ratio making it Ideal for a Single-Stage Snow Thrower

The single-stage snow blower is much lighter.  For it has only a fast-spinning auger.  It eats into the snow, pulls it towards the center and throws it out the discharge chute.   Without an impeller.  Throwing it a pretty fair distance.  And the auger actually comes into contract with the ground.  Which helps pull it forward.  And cleans down to the pavement.  With the only one spinning component there are no heavy gear boxes providing multiple speeds to different components.  Making the single-stage snow blower much lighter.  And easier to maneuver.  And it typically has a 2-cycle (or 2-stroke) engine.  Making it lighter still.

The typical engine on a 2-stage snow blower is a 4-cycle (or 4-stroke) engine.  Where the piston moves up or down 4 times to create power.  It moves down and draws in an air-fuel mixture through an intake valve.  It moves up and compresses the air-fuel mixture.  A spark plug ignites this and the hot expanding gases push the piston down on its power stroke.  And then the piston comes up and pushes the exhaust gases out of the cylinder through an exhaust valve.  Then repeats.  A 2-cycle engine has fewer moving parts.  And half the strokes.  As the air-fuel-oil mixture ignites the hot gases push the piston down.  As the top of the piston moves past exhaust ports the exhaust gases can exit the cylinder.  At the same time an air-fuel-oil mixture enters the cylinder through intake ports on the other side of the cylinder.  The piston moves up and compresses this, ignites and pushes the piston down.  Then repeats.

The advantage of a 2-cycle engine is a high power-to-weight ratio.  Allowing a smaller 2-cycle engine to do the work of a comparable 4-cycle engine.  Making them ideal for a single-stage snow blower.  The disadvantage of a 2-cycle engine is that the crank case is used to draw in the air-fuel mixture on the up-stroke of the piston.  And then the piston pushed the air-fuel mixture out of the crankcase and into the cylinder on the down-stroke of the piston.  Because the crankcase is used as part of the pathway for the air-fuel mixture it cannot hold oil.  Which is why we mix oil in the fuel.  Giving us an air-fuel-oil mixture that combusts in the cylinder.  The moving components get lubricated as this mixture travels through the engine.  Which is perhaps the biggest drawback of the single-stage snow blower.  Having to mix oil with gas.  It’s not difficult.  You just have to make sure you add the right amount of oil.  And not to use this gas-oil mixture in your 4-cycle lawnmower.  And even though we were never big fans of cutting the grass even that begins to look pretty sweet as the snow blows back in our face as we walk behind our snow blowers.  Thinking of but one thing.  Spring.  And thanks to these wonderful machines we may actually make it to spring healthy.  Without having suffered a wrenched back, hernia or a heart attack.

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Steam Locomotive

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 13th, 2013

Technology 101

The Steam Locomotive was one of the Few Technologies that wasn’t replaced by a Superior Technology 

Man first used stone tools about two and a half million years ago.  We first controlled fire for our use about a million years ago.  We first domesticated animals and began farming a little over 10,000 years ago.  The Egyptians were moving goods by boats some 5,000 years ago.  The Greeks and Romans first used the water wheel for power about 2,500 years ago. The Industrial Revolution began about 250 years ago.  James Watt improved the steam engine about 230 years ago.  England introduced the first steam locomotive into rail service about 210 years ago. 

In the first half of the 1800s the United States started building its railroads.  Helping the North to win the Civil War.  And completing the transcontinental railroad in 1869.  By 1890 there were about 130,000 miles of track crisscrossing the United States.  With the stream locomotives growing faster.  And more powerful.  These massive marvels of engineering helped the United States to become the number one economic power in the world.  As her vast resources and manufacturing centers were all connected by rail.  These powerful steam locomotives raced people across the continent.  And pulled ever longer—and heavier—freight trains.

We built bigger and bigger steam locomotives.  That had the power to pull freight across mountains.  To race across the Great Plains.  And into our cities.  With the chugging sound and the mournful steam whistle filling many a childhood memories.  But by the end of World War II the era of steam was over.  After little more than a century.  Barely a blip in the historical record.  Yet it advanced mankind in that century like few other technological advances.   Transforming the Industrial Revolution into the Second Industrial Revolution.  Or the Technological Revolution.  That gave us the steel that built America.  Electric Power.  Mass production.  And the production line.  None of which would have happened without the steam locomotive.  It was one of the few technologies that wasn’t replaced by a superior technology.  For the steam locomotive was more powerful than the diesel-electric that replaced it.  But the diesel-electric was far more cost-efficient than the steam locomotive. Even if you had to lash up 5 diesels to do the job of one steam locomotive.

The Hot Gases from the Firebox pass through the Boiler Tubes to Boil Water into Steam

The steam engine is an external combustion engine.  Unlike the internal combustion engine the burning of fuel did not move a piston.  Instead burning fuel produced steam.  And the expansion energy in steam moved the piston.  The steam locomotive is a large but compact boiler on wheels.  At one end is a firebox that typically burned wood, coal or oil.  At the other end is the smokebox.  Where the hot gases from the firebox ultimately vent out into the atmosphere through the smokestack.  In between the firebox and the smokebox are a bundle of long pipes.  Boiler tubes.  The longer the locomotive the longer the boiler tubes. 

To start a fire the fireman lights something to burn with a torch and places it on the grating in the firebox.  As this burns he may place some pieces of wood on it to build the fire bigger.  Once the fire is strong he will start shoveling in coal.  Slowly but surely the fire grows hotter.  The hot gases pass through the boiler tubes and into the smokebox.  And up the smoke stack.  Water surrounds the boiler tubes.  The hot gases in the boiler tubes heat the water around the tubes.  Boiling it into steam.  Slowly but surely the amount of water boiled into steam grows.  Increasing the steam pressure in the boiler.  At the top of the boiler over the boiler tubes is a steam dome.  A high point in the boiler where steam under pressure collects looking for a way out of the boiler.  Turned up into the steam dome is a pipe that runs down and splits into two.  Running to the valve chest above each steam cylinder.  Where the steam pushes a piston back and forth.  Which connects to the drive wheels via a connecting rod.

When the engineer moves the throttle level it operates a variable valve in the steam dome.  The more he opens this valve the more steam flows out of the boiler and into the valve chests.  And the greater the speed.  The valve in the valve chest moved back and forth.  When it moved to one side it opened a port into the piston cylinder behind the piston to push it one way.  Then the valve moved the other way.  Opening a port on the other side of the piston cylinder to allow steam to flow in front of the piston.  To push it back the other way.  As the steam expanded in the cylinder to push the piston the spent steam exhausted into the smoke stack and up into the atmosphere.  Creating a draft that helped pull the hot gases from the firebox through the boiler tubes, into the smokebox and out the smoke stack.  Creating the chugging sound from our childhood memories.

The Challenger and the Big Boy were the Superstars of Steam Locomotives

To keep the locomotive moving required two things.  A continuous supply of fuel and water.  Stored in the tender trailing the locomotive.  The fireman shoveled coal from the tender into the firebox.  What space the coal wasn’t occupying in the tender was filled with water.  The only limit on speed and power was the size of the boiler.  The bigger the firebox the hotter the fire.  And the hungrier it was for fuel.  The bigger locomotives required a mechanized coal feeder into the firebox as a person couldn’t shovel the coal fast enough.  Also, the bigger the engine the greater the weight.  The greater the weight the greater the wear and tear on the rail.  Like trucks on the highway railroads had a limit of weight per axel.  So as the engines got bigger the more wheels there were ahead of the drive wheels and trailing the drive wheels.  For example, the Hudson 4-6-4 had two axels (with four wheels) ahead of the drive wheels.  Three axles (with 6 wheels) connected to the pistons that powered the train.  And two axels (with four wheels) trailing the drive wheels to help support the weight of the firebox.

To achieve ever higher speeds and power over grades required ever larger boilers.  For higher speeds used a lot of steam.  Requiring a huge firebox to keep boiling water into steam to maintain those higher speeds.  But greater lengths and heavier boilers required more wheels.  And more wheels did not turn well in curves.  Leading to more wear and tear on the rails.  Enter the 4-6-6-4 Challenger.  The pinnacle of steam locomotive design.  To accommodate this behemoth on curves the designers reintroduced the articulating locomotive.  They split up the 12 drive wheels of the then most powerful locomotive in service into two sets of 6.  Each with their own set of pistons.  While the long boiler was a solid piece the frame underneath wasn’t.  It had a pivot point.  The first set of drive wheels and the four wheels in front of them were in front of this pivot.  And the second set of drive wheels and the trailing 4 wheels that carried the weight of the massive boiler on the Challenger were behind this pivot.  So instead of having one 4-6-6-4 struggling through curves there was one 4-6 trailing one 6-4.  Allowing it to negotiate curves easier and at greater speeds.

The Challenger was fast.  And powerful.  It could handle just about any track in America.  Except that over the Wasatch Range between Green River, Wyoming and Ogden, Utah.  Here even the Challenger couldn’t negotiate those grades on its own.  These trains required double-heading.  Two Challengers with two crews (unlike lashing up diesels today where one crew operates multiple units from one cab).  And helper locomotives.  This took a lot of time.  And cost a lot of money.  So to negotiate these steep grades Union Pacific built the 4-8-8-4 articulated Big Boy.  Basically the Challenger on steroids.  The Big Boy could pull anything anywhere.  The Challenger and the Big Boy were the superstars of steam locomotives.  But these massive boilers on wheels required an enormous amount of maintenance.  Which is why they lasted but 20 years in service.  Replaced by tiny little diesel-electric locomotives.  That revolutionized railroading.  Because they were so less costly to maintain and operate.  Even if you had to use 7 of them to do what one Big Boy could do.

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Triple Expansion Steam Engine

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2013

Technology 101

Pressure and Temperature have a Direct Relationship while Pressure and Volume have an Inverse Relationship

For much of human existence we used our own muscles to push things.  Which limited the work we could do.  Early river transport were barges of low capacity that we pushed along with a pole.  We’d stand on the barge and place the pole into the water and into the river bed.  Then push the pole away from us.  To get the boat to move in the other direction.

In more developed areas we may have cleared a pathway alongside the river.  And pulled our boats with animal power.  Of course, none of this helped us cross an ocean.  Only sail did that.  Where we captured the wind in sails.  And the wind pushed our ships across the oceans.  Then we started to understand our environment more.  And noticed relationships between physical properties.  Such as the ideal gas law equation:

Pressure = (n X R X Temperature)/Volume

In a gas pressure is determined my multiplying together ‘n’ and ‘R’ and temperature then dividing this number by volume.  Where ‘n’ is the amount of moles of the gas.  And ‘R’ is the constant 8.3145 m3·Pa/(mol·K).  For our purposes you can ignore ‘n’ and ‘R’.  It’s the relationship between pressure, temperature and volume that we want to focus on.  Which we can see in the ideal gas law equation.  Pressure and temperature have a direct relationship.  That is, if one rises so does the other.  If one falls so does the other.  While pressure and volume have an inverse relationship.  If volume decreases pressure increases.  If volume increases pressure decreases.  These properties prove to be very useful.  Especially if we want to push things.

Once the Piston traveled its Full Stroke on a Locomotive the Spent Steam vented into the Atmosphere 

So what gas can produce a high pressure that we can make relatively easy?  Steam.  Which we can make simply by boiling water.  And if we can harness this steam in a fixed vessel the pressure will rise to become strong enough to push things for us.  Operating a boiler was a risky profession, though.  As a lot of boiler operators died when the steam they were producing rose beyond safe levels.  Causing the boiler to explode like a bomb.

Early locomotives would burn coal or wood to boil water into steam.  The steam pressure was so great that it would push a piston while at the same time moving a connecting rod connected to the locomotive’s wheel.  Once the piston traveled its full stroke the spent steam vented into the atmosphere.  Allowing the pressure of that steam to dissipate safely into the air.  Of course doing this required the locomotive to stop at water towers along the way to keep taking on fresh water to boil into steam. 

Not all steam engines vented their used steam (after it expanded and gave up its energy) into the atmosphere.  Most condensed the low-pressure, low-temperature steam back into water.  Piping it (i.e., the condensate) back to the boiler to boil again into steam.  By recycling the used steam back into water eliminated the need to have water available to feed into the boiler.  Reducing non-revenue weight in steam ships.  And making more room available for fuel to travel greater distances.  Or to carry more revenue-producing cargo.

The Triple Expansion Steam Engine reduced the Expansion and Temperature Drop in each Cylinder

Pressure pushes the pistons in the steam engine.  And by the ideal gas law equation we see that the higher the temperature the higher the pressure.  As well as the corollary.  The lower the temperature the lower the pressure.  And one other thing.  As the volume increases the temperature falls.  So as the pressure in the steam pushes the piston the volume inside the cylinder increases.  Which lowers the temperature of the steam.  And the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls.  So when fresh steam from the boiler flows into this cylinder the cooler temperature of the piston and cylinder walls will cool the temperature of the steam.  Condensing some of it.  Reducing the pressure of the steam.  Which will push the piston with less force.  Reducing the efficiency of the engine.

There was a way to improve the efficiency of the steam engine.  By reducing the temperature drop during expansion (i.e., when it moves the piston).  They did this by raising the temperature of the steam.  And breaking down the expansion phase into multiple parts.  Such as in the triple expansion steam engine.  Where steam from the boiler entered the first cylinder.  Which is the smallest cylinder.  After it pushed the piston the spent steam still had a lot of energy in it looking to expand further.  Which it did in the second cylinder.  As the exhaust port of the first cylinder is piped into the intake port of the second cylinder.

The second cylinder is bigger than the first cylinder.  For the steam entering this cylinder is a lower-pressure and lower-temperature steam than that entering the first cylinder.  And needs a larger area to push against to match the down-stroke force on the first piston.  After it pushes this piston there is still energy left in that steam looking to expand.  Which it did in the third and largest cylinder.  After it pushed the third piston this low-pressure and low-temperature steam flowed into the condenser.  Where cooling removed what energy (i.e., temperature above the boiling point of water) was left in it.  Turning it back into water again.  Which was then pumped back to the boiler.  To be boiled into steam again.

By restricting the amount of expansion in each cylinder the triple expansion steam engine reduced the amount the temperature fell in each cylinder.  Allowing more of the heat go into pushing the piston.  And less of it go into raising the temperature of the piston and cylinder walls.  Greatly increasing the efficiency of the engine.  Making it the dominant maritime engine during the era of steam.

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Carbon, Carbon Cycle, Crude Oil, Petroleum, Hydrocarbons, Oil Refinery, Cracking, Sweet Crude, Sour Crude, Gasoline and Diesel Engines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 25th, 2012

Technology 101

Crude Oil is made from Long Chains of Carbon Atoms Bonded Together with a lot of Hydrogen Atoms Attached Along the Way

Carbon.  It’s everywhere.  And in everything.  Like all matter it cannot be created.  Or destroyed.  It just changes.  As it creates the circle of life.  The carbon cycle.  Plants and trees absorb carbon out of the atmosphere.  And converts it into biomass.  Into wood.  And into animal food.  Where the digestive system converts it into carbon-based living flesh and blood.  That exhales carbon.  Plants absorb carbon and release oxygen.  Plants can’t grow without carbon.  And we can’t breathe without plants growing.  Carbon is constantly changing.  But never created.  Or destroyed.  From diamonds to pencils.  From sugar to carbonated soda.  From plastics to human beings.  It’s everywhere.  And everything.  Why, it’s life itself.

Carbon is a time traveler.  Carbon that once traveled through the atmosphere disappeared millions of years ago.  Buried underneath the surface of the earth.  Under intense heat and pressure.  Plankton and algae and other biomasses decayed until there was almost nothing left but carbon atoms.  Long chains of carbon atoms.  Forming great, restless pools of black goo beneath the surface.   Waiting for the modern world to arrive.  Waiting for the internal combustion engine.  The jet engine.  And plastics.  When they could be reborn.  And see the light of day again.

Crude oil.  Petroleum.  Black gold.  Texas tea.  Hydrocarbons.  Long chains of carbon atoms bonded together with a lot of hydrogen atoms attached along the way.  In the ground they’re mostly long chains.  When we get them above ground we can break those chains into different lengths.  And create many different things.  C16H34 (hexadecane).  C9H20 (nonane).  C8H18 (octane).  C7H16 (heptane).  C5H12 (pentane).  C4H10 (butane).  C6H6 (benzene).  CH4 (methane).  Some of these you may be familiar with.  Some you may not.  Methane is a flammable gas.  Hydrocarbon chains from pentane to octane make gasoline.  Hydrocarbon chains from nonane to hexadecane make diesel fuel, kerosene and jet fuel.  Chains with more carbon atoms make lubricants.  Chains with even more carbon atoms make asphalt.  While chains with 4 carbon atoms or less make gases.  All these things made from the same black goo.  A true marvel of Mother Nature.  Or God.  Depending on your inclination.

Older Coastal Refineries make more Expensive Gasoline than the Newer Refineries due to the Availability of Sweet versus Sour Crude

Another great carbon-based product it bourbon.  Made from a corn sour mash.  We heat this and the alcohol in it boils off.  That is, we distill it.  We run this gas through a coiling coil and it condenses back into a liquid.  And after a few more steps we get delicious bourbon whiskey.  Distilleries give tours.  If you get a chance you should take one.  You won’t get to sample any of the distilled spirits (insurance reasons).  But you will get a feel for what an oil refinery is.

An oil refinery works on the same principles.  Boil and condense.  And cracking.  Cracking those long hydrocarbon chains apart into all those different chains.  Long and small.  Into liquids and gases.  Even solid lubricants and asphalt.  All made possible because of their different boiling points.  The gases having lower boiling points.  The solids having higher boiling points.  And the liquids having boiling points somewhere in between.

Refineries are complex processing plants.  Not only because of all those different hydrocarbon chains.  But because of the crude oil introduced to these plants.  For there is light sweet crude.  And heavier sour crude.  The difference being the additional stuff that we need to remove.  Such as sulfur.  An environmental problem.  So we have to remove as much of it as possible during the refining process to meet EPA standards.  The sweet crudes are lower in sulfur.  Making them the crude of choice.  But this has also been the most popular crude through the years.  So its resources are dwindling.  Making it more expensive.  As are all the products refined from it.  Especially gasoline.  The more sour crudes have higher sulfur content.  And require more refining steps to remove that sulfur.  Which means additional refinery equipment.  So the older refineries that were refining the light sweet crude can’t refine the heavier sour crudes.  Which is why the refineries along the coasts make more expensive gasoline than the newer ones in the interior refining the heavier sour crudes.  Due to the availability of sweet crude versus sour crude.

The Modern World is brought to us by a Complex Economy which is brought to us by Petroleum

One of the main uses of refined crude oil is fuel for internal combustion engines.  In particular, gasoline engines and diesel engines.  Which are very similar.  The difference being the mode of ignition.  And, of course, the fuel.  Gasoline engines compress an air-fuel mixture in the cylinder.  At the top of the compression stroke a spark plug ignites this highly compressed and heated mixture.  Sending the piston down.  If the combustion occurs too early it could place undo stresses on the piston connecting rods and the crank shaft.  By trying to send the piston down when it was coming up.  Causing a knocking sound.  Which is a bad sound to hear.  And if you hear it you should probably make sure you’re using the right gasoline.  If you are you need to have you car serviced.  Because continued knocking may break something.  And if it does your engine will work no more.  So this is where octane comes in the blending of gasoline.  It’s expensive.  But the more of it in gasoline the higher the compression you can have.  And the less knocking.  Which is its only purpose.  It doesn’t give you any more power.  The higher compression does.  Which the higher octane allows.  Using the higher octane gas in a standard compression engine won’t do anything but waste your hard earned money.

And speaking of higher compression engines, that brings us to diesel engines.  Which are similar to gasoline engines only they operate under a higher compression.  And don’t use spark plugs.  These engines compress air only.  Which allows the higher compression without pre-ignition.  At the top of their compression stroke a fuel injector squirts diesel fuel into the hot compressed air where it combusts on contact.  Diesel fuel has a higher energy content than gasoline.  Meaning for the same volume of fuel diesel can take you further than gasoline.  Which is why trucks, locomotives and ships use diesel.  But diesel tends to pollute more.  The smell and the soot kept diesel out of our cars for a long time.  As well as the difficulty of starting in cold climates.  Advanced computer controlled systems have helped, though, and we’re seeing more diesel used in cars now.

The modern world is brought to us by a complex economy.  Where goods and raw materials traverse the globe.  To feed our industries.  And to ship our finished goods.  Which we put on trucks, trains, ships and airplanes.  None of which would be possible without a portable, stable, energy-dense fuel.  That only refined petroleum can give us.  It’s better than animal power.  Water power.  Wind power.  Or steam power.  For there is nothing that we can use in our trucks, trains, ships and airplanes other than refined petroleum products today that wouldn’t be a step backwards in our modern world.  Nothing.  Making petroleum truly a marvel of Mother Nature.  Or God.  Depending on your inclination.

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Trade, Steam Power, Reciprocating Steam Engine, Railroading, Janney Coupler and Westinghouse Air Brake

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 25th, 2012

Technology 101

Early Cities emerged on Rivers and Coastal Water Regions because that’s where the Trade Was

The key to wealth and a higher standard of living has been and remains trade.  The division of labor has created a complex and rich economy.  So that today we can have many things in our lives.  Things that we don’t understand how they work.  And could never make ourselves.  But because of a job skill we can trade our talent for a paycheck.  And then trade that money for all those wonderful things in our economy.

Getting to market to trade for those things, though, hasn’t always been easy.  Traders helped here.  By first using animals to carry large amounts of goods.  Such as on the Silk Road from China.  And as the Romans moved on their extensive road network.  But you could carry more goods by water.  Rivers and coastal waterways providing routes for heavy transport carriers.  Using oar and sail power.  With advancements in navigation larger ships traveled the oceans.  Packing large holds full of goods.  Making these shippers very wealthy.  Because they could transport much more than any land-based transportation system.  Not to mention the fact that they could ‘bridge’ the oceans to the New World.

This is why early cities emerged on rivers and coastal water regions.  Because that’s where the trade was.  The Italian city-states and their ports dominated Mediterranean trade until the maritime superpowers of Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, Great Britain and France put them out of business.  Their competition for trade and colonies brought European technology to the New World.  Including a new technology that allowed civilization to move inland.  The steam engine.

Railroading transformed the Industrial Economy

Boiling water creates steam.  When this steam is contained it can do work.  Because water boiling into steam expands.  Producing pressure.  Which can push a piston.  When steam condenses back into water it contracts.  Producing a vacuum.   Which can pull a piston.  As the first useable steam engine did.  The Newcomen engine.  First used in 1712.  Which filled a cylinder with steam.  Then injected cold water in the cylinder to condense the steam back into water.  Creating a vacuum that pulled a piston down.  Miners used this engine to pump water out of their mines.  But it wasn’t very efficient.  Because the cooled cylinder that had just condensed the steam after the power stroke cooled the steam entering the cylinder for the next power stroke.

James Watt improved on this design in 1775.  By condensing the steam back into water in a condenser.  Not in the steam cylinder.  Greatly improving the efficiency of the engine.  And he made other improvements.  Including a design where a piston could move in both directions.  Under pressure.  Leading to a reciprocating engine.  And one that could be attached to a wheel.  Launching the Industrial Revolution.  By being able to put a factory pretty much anywhere.  Retiring the waterwheel and the windmill from the industrial economy.

The Industrial Revolution exploded economic activity.  Making goods at such a rate that the cost per unit plummeted.  Requiring new means of transportation to feed these industries.  And to ship the massive amount of goods they produced to market.  At first the U.S. built some canals to interconnect rivers.  But the steam engine allowed a new type of transportation.  Railroading.  Which transformed the industrial economy.  Where we shipped more and more goods by rail.  On longer and longer trains.  Which made railroading a more and more dangerous occupation.  Especially for those who coupled those trains together.  And for those who stopped them.  Two of the most dangerous jobs in the railroad industry.  And two jobs that fell to the same person.  The brakeman.

The Janney Coupler and the Westinghouse Air Brake made Railroading Safer and more Profitable

The earliest trains had an engine and a car or two.  So there wasn’t much coupling or decoupling.  And speed and weight were such that the engineer could stop the train from the engine.  But that all changed as we coupled more cars together.  In the U.S., we first connected cars together with the link-and-pin coupler.  Where something like an eyebolt slipped into a hollow tube with a hole in it.  As the engineer backed the train up a man stood between the cars being coupled and dropped a pin in the hole in the hollow tube through the eyebolt.  Dangerous work.  As cars smashed into each other a lot of brakemen still had body parts in between.  Losing fingers.  Hands.  Some even lost their life.

Perhaps even more dangerous was stopping a train.  As trains grew longer the locomotive couldn’t stop the train alone.  Brakemen had to apply the brakes evenly on every car in the train.  By moving from car to car.  On the top of a moving train.  Jumping the gap between cars.  With nothing to hold on to but the wheel they turned to apply the brakes.  A lot of men fell to their deaths.  And if one did you couldn’t grieve long.  For someone else had to stop that train.  Before it became a runaway and derailed.  Potentially killing everyone on that train.

As engines became more powerful trains grew even longer.  Resulting in more injuries and deaths.  Two inventions changed that.  The Janney coupler invented in 1873.  And the Westinghouse Air Brake invented in 1872.  Both made mandatory in 1893 by the Railroad Safety Appliance Act.  The Janney coupler is what you see on U.S. trains today.  It’s an automatic coupler that doesn’t require anyone to stand in between two cars they’re coupling together.  You just backed one car into another.  Upon impact, the couplers latch together.  They are released by a lifting a handle accessible from the side of the train.

The Westinghouse Air Brake consisted of an air line running the length of the train.  Metal tubes under cars.  And those thick hoses between cars.  The train line.  A steam-powered air compressor kept this line under pressure.  Which, in turn, maintained pressure in air tanks on each car.  To apply the brakes from the locomotive cab the engineer released pressure from this line.  The lower pressure in the train line opened a valve in the rail car air tanks, allowing air to fill a brake piston cylinder.  The piston moved linkages that engaged the brake shoes on the wheels.  With braking done by lowering air pressure it’s a failsafe system.  For example, if a coupler fails and some cars separate this will break the train line.  The train line will lose all pressure.  And the brakes will automatically engage, powered by the air tanks on each car.

Railroads without Anything to Transport Produce no Revenue

Because of the reciprocating steam engine, the Janney coupler and the Westinghouse Air Brake trains were able to get longer and faster.  Carrying great loads great distances in a shorter time.  This was the era of railroading where fortunes were made.  However, those fortunes came at a staggering cost.  For laying track cost a fortune.  Surveying, land, right-of-ways, grading, road ballast, ties, rail, bridges and tunnels weren’t cheap.  They required immense financing.  But if the line turned out to be profitable with a lot of shippers on that line to keep those rails polished, the investment paid off.  And fortunes were made.  But if the shippers didn’t appear and those rails got rusty because little revenue traveled them, fortunes were lost.  With losses so great they caused banks to fail.

The Panic of 1893 was caused in part by such speculation in railroads.  They borrowed great funds to build railroad lines that could never pay for themselves.  Without the revenue there was no way to repay these loans.  And fortunes were lost.  The fallout reverberated through the U.S. banking system.  Throwing the nation into the worst depression until the Great Depression.  Thanks to great technology.  That some thought was an automatic ticket to great wealth.  Only to learn later that even great technology cannot change the laws of economics.  Specifically, railroads without anything to transport produce no revenue.

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