Prevailing Winds, Channel Markers, Buoys, Portage, Canals, Locks, Niagara Falls and the Welland Canal

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 30th, 2013

Technology 101

The Lateen-Rigged Sail allows Ships to Maneuver onto the Prevailing Winds Superhighways

Oceans are deep.  Allowing ships to cross them without fear of striking bottom.  Which helped the age of sail.  As sailors could use the prevailing winds to fill large masts of square-rigged sails to blow them across oceans.  Sailing to the New World with the trade winds (near the equator) and polar easterlies (near the poles) filling their sails.  And sailing from the New World with the westerlies (in the middle latitudes in both hemispheres) filling their sails.  The deep oceans let these sailing vessels move unrestricted to find the best wind.

That is, once these sailing vessels got to the proper latitude.  Getting there they had to use another kind of sail.  A lateen-rigged sail.  A triangular sail with a leading edge that cut into the wind.  Splitting the wind so part of it filled the sail.  The sail blew out and redirected the wind to the stern of the ship.  While the wind passing over the top of the curved sail created lift.  Like on an aircraft wing.  Pulling the ship forward.  This allows a wind blowing in from the side of a ship to propel it forward.  Which allows a sailing vessel to sail into the wind.  By sailing in a zigzag path.  Or beating.  After sailing in one direction they come about.  Or tack.  Turning the bow through the wind so it blows in from the other side of the ship.

The wide open and deep oceans let these sailing vessels maneuver at will to catch the wind.  Propelling them forward at speed.  Without fear of grounding out on the bottom.  Taking them to the great superhighways across the oceans.  To the trade winds and polar easterlies to sail west.  And to the westerlies to sail east.  Where these winds could fill multiple squared-rigged sails on a single mast.  On ships with multiple masts.  Allowing them to catch a lot of wind.  And to drive them forward to their destination.

Channel Markers and Buoys are Color-Coded telling Ship Captains ‘Red Right Returning’

Of course it’s these destinations that really matter.  For sailing around in the middle of the ocean is worthless unless you can load and unload cargo somewhere.  Getting to these ports was a little trickier.  Because it required sailing closer to land.  Where the ocean floor rises up quickly from great depths.  Making sailing near shores hazardous.  As hidden shoals and reefs hide just below the surface.  Threatening to cut a deep gash in a ship’s hull.  Or a ship could run aground in the shallows.  Where they may have to wait for a rising tide to free them.  All the while risking being damaged by any storm that blew in.

The first sailors who arrived in the New World had no navigational aids like we do today.  Often having to rely on the experience of a grizzled captain who could see and smell dangers in the water.  Or they dropped anchor away from the shore and explored the coast in smaller boats to sound out sea approaches to a deep-water harbor.  As time passed lighthouses dotted the shoreline.  And other navigational aids guided ship captains.  To warn them of dangerous waters.  And show safe channels to navigate.    Channel markers and buoys are color-coded.  With paint for day navigation.  And lights for night navigation.  In the New World (and Japan, South Korea and the Philippines) the colors are red and green.  When entering a harbor or river from the sea the red is kept on the right of a ship.  Mariners learn this with the memory device ‘red right returning’.

When the French sailed up the Saint Lawrence River they founded the oldest walled-city in North America.  Quebec City.  They then sailed as far upstream as they could.  Founding the city of Montreal.  Going beyond Montreal required portaging around the rapids at Montreal.  And a few others until they got to Lake Ontario.  Where they could re-embark ships and sail across Lake Ontario and into the Niagara River.  Where they had to portage around the rapids.  And Niagara Falls.  Where they once again could re-embark ships and enter Lake Erie.  Then sail up the Detroit River.  Across Lake St. Clair.  Up the St. Clair River.  And into Lake Huron.  Where they could sail through the Straits of Mackinac and into Lake Michigan.  Or up the St. Marys River.  Where they could portage around the rapids in the St. Marys River.  Reentering the river upstream of the rapids to let them sail into Lake Superior.  Where they could sail all the way to Minnesota.  And take on iron ore.  Mined from the great iron ore deposits beyond Lake Superior.  To feed the blast furnaces of America’s steel industry.

A Lock consists of a Chamber with Watertight Gates at each end and some Valves

Of course, iron ore is heavy.  As is a lot of the bulk freight shipping on the Great Lakes.  Making those portages around rapids and falls difficult and costly.  They needed to find a better way.  And they have.  Which is why Great Lakes freighters can travel from the western end of Lake Superior to the Saint Lawrence River.  And ocean-going freighters can enter the Saint Lawrence River and travel to the western end of Lake Superior.  Without a single portage.  Thanks to canals.  And locks.

A canal provides a passage around rapids or falls.  And locks in the canal can raise or lower a ship to the water level at either side of the rapids or falls.  Getting around the rapids between Montreal and Lake Ontario and in the St. Marys River didn’t require long canals.  Just enough to provide a passage around the rapids.  The Niagara River posed a bigger problem.  For there were both rapids.  And Niagara Falls.  As well as a great change in water levels.  The level in Lake Erie is 326.5 feet above the level in Lake Ontario.  As the typical lock doesn’t raise and lower water 326.5 feet one lock just wasn’t a solution.  So they used 8 (7 for raising and lowering ships and the 8th as a control lock).   And dug a canal across the Niagara peninsula.   The Welland Canal.  From Port Weller on Lake Ontario to Port Colborne on Lake Erie.  Interconnected by 26 miles of canal.  Allowing fully loaded bulk freighters to travel between Lakes Erie and Ontario.  And ocean-going freighters to travel from the Atlantic ocean (and the world beyond) to the western end of Lake Superior.

So how does a lock work?  Are there massive pumps to pump in water to raise a ship?  No.  There are no pumps.  Just a couple of valves.  A lock consists of a chamber with watertight gates at each end.  The gates swing open towards the upstream side.  When they close they form an 18-degree angle that points upstream.  So when the water level is higher on the upstream side the force of the water presses the gates closed and makes a watertight seal.  When the water level is equal on both sides of the gate they can easily open the gates.  When a ship enters a lock both gates seal.  If they are lowering a ship they open valves between the chamber and the canal on the downstream side.  The high water level inside the chamber drains until the water levels equalize.  If they are raising a ship they open valves between the chamber and the canal on the upstream side.  Water from the canal enters the chamber until the water levels equalize.  Then the appropriate gate opens and the ship goes on its way.  A very simple and low-tech process.  Allowing ships with deep drafts to travel the oceans.  Rivers.  And inland lakes.  Thanks to navigational aids.  Canals.  And locks.


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Flint Tools, Levers, Wheels, Animal Power, Water Power, Wind Power, Steam Power, Electrical Power, Nuclear Power and Solar Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 22nd, 2012

Technology 101

Man harnessed the Energy in Moving Water with a Water Wheel

When prehistoric man first chipped a piece of flint to make a sharp edge he learned something.  It made work easier.  And his life better.  This tool concentrated his energy into that sharp edge.  Increasing the amount of energy he could put to work.  Allowing him to skin an animal quickly and efficiently like never before.  Making better hides to protect him from the elements.  Yes, he said, this tool is good.  But in a somewhat less sophisticated manner of speech.

From that moment forward it has been man’s singular desire to improve on this first tool.  To find ways to concentrate energy and put it to work.  Levers allowed him to move heavier things.  Wheels allowed him to move heavier loads.  The block and tackle allowed him to lift or pull heavier weights.  Harnessing animals allowed him to do all of these things even better.  And we would use animal power for millennia.  Even today they still provide the primary source of power for some less developed countries.

But animals have their limitations.  They’re big, they eat, drink, pee and poop.  Which doesn’t make them an ideal source of power to turn a mill wheel.  A big wheel that grinds grain into flour.  It’s heavy.  But it doesn’t have to spin fast.  Just for long periods of time.  Then man had another moment like he did when he chipped a piece of flint.  He noticed in his environment that things moved.  The wind.  And the water in a river.  The wind could blow fast or slow.  Or not at all.  But the water flow was steady.  And reliable.  So man harnessed the energy in the moving water with a water wheel.  And connected it to his mill wheel via some belts and pulleys.  And where there was no water available he harnessed the less reliable wind.

The Steam Engine eliminated the Major Drawbacks of Water Power and Wind Power 

The water flowed day and night.  You didn’t have to feed it or clean up after it.  And a strong current had a lot of concentrated energy.  Which could do a lot of work.  Far more than a sharpened piece of flint.  Which was ideal for our first factories.  The water wheel shaft became a main drive shaft that drove other machines via belts and pulleys.  The main drive shaft ran the length of the factory.  Workers could operate machinery underneath it by engaging it to the main drive shaft through a belt and pulley.  Take a trip to the past and visit a working apple mill powered by a water wheel.  It’s fascinating.  And you’ll be able to enjoy some fresh donuts and hot cider.  During the harvest, of course.

While we built factories along rivers we used that other less reliable source of energy to cross oceans.  Wind power.  It wasn’t very reliable.  And it wasn’t very concentrated.  But it was the only way you could cross an ocean.  Which made it the best way to cross an ocean.  Sailors used everything on a sailing ship from the deck up to catch the wind and put it to work.  Masts, rigging and sails.  Which were costly.  Required a large crew.  And took up a lot of space and added a lot of weight.  Space and weight that displaced revenue-earning cargo.

The steam engine eliminated the major drawbacks of water power and wind power.  By replacing the water wheel with a steam engine we could build factories anywhere.  Not just on rivers.  And the steam engine let ships cross the oceans whenever they wanted to.  Even when the wind didn’t blow.  And more space was available for revenue-earning cargo.  When these ships reached land we transferred their cargoes to trains.  Pulled by steam locomotives.  That could carry this revenue-earning cargo across continents.   This was a huge step forward.  Boiling water by burning coal to make steam.  A highly concentrated energy source.  A little of it went a long way.  And did more work for us than ever.  Far more than a water wheel.  It increased the amount of work we could do so much that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

With Nuclear Power our Quest to find more Concentrated Forms of Energy came to an End 

We replaced coal with oil in our ships and locomotives.  Because it was easier to transport.  Store.  And didn’t need people to shovel it into a boiler.  Oil burners were more efficient.  We even used it to generate a new source of power.  Electrical power.  We used it to boil water at electrical generating plants to spin turbines that turned electrical generators.  We could run pipelines to feed these plants.  Making the electricity they generated even more efficient.  And reliable.  Soon diesel engines replaced the oil burners in ships and trains.  Allowed trucks and buses to run where the trains didn’t.  And gasoline allowed people to go anywhere the trains and buses didn’t go.

The modern economy ran on petroleum.  And electricity.  We even returned to the water wheel to generate electricity.  By building dams to build huge reservoirs of water at elevations.  Creating huge headwater forces.  Concentrating more energy in water.  Which we funneled down to the lower elevation.  Making it flow through high-speed water turbines connected to electrical generators.  That spun far faster than their water wheel ancestors.  Producing huge amounts of reliable electrical power.  We even came up with a more reliable means to create electrical power.  With an even more concentrated fuel.  Fissile material gave us nuclear power.  During the oil shocks of the Seventies the Japanese made a policy change to expand their use of nuclear power.  To insulate them from future oil supply shocks.  Which it did.  While in America the movie The China Syndrome came out around the time of the incident at Three Mile Island.  And killed nuclear power in America.  (But as a consolation prize we disproved the idea of Keynesian stimulus.  When the government created massive inflation with Keynesian policy.  Printing money.  Which raised prices without providing any new economic activity.  Causing instead high inflation and high unemployment.  What we call stagflation.  The Japanese got a big Keynesian lesson about a decade later.  When their massive asset bubble began to deflate giving them their Lost Decade.)

And with nuclear power that quest to find more ways to make better and more efficient use of concentrated energy from that first day we used a flint tool came to an end.  Global warming alarmists are killing sensible sources of energy that have given us the modern world.  Even animal rights activists are fighting against one of the cleanest sources of power we’ve ever used.  Water power.  Because damming rivers harms ecosystems in the rivers we dam.  Instead political pressures have turned the hands of time backwards by using less concentrated and less efficient sources of energy.  Wind power.  And solar power.  Requiring far greater infrastructure installations to capture far less amounts of energy from these sources.  Power plants using wind power and solar power will require acres of land for windmills and solar panels.  And it will take many of these power plants to produce what a single power plant using coal, oil, natural gas or fissile material can generate.  Making power more costly than it ever has been.  Despite wind and sunshine being free.  And when the great civilizations become bankrupt chasing bankrupt energy policies we will return to a simpler world.  A world where we don’t make and use power.  Or machinery.  Much like our flint-tool using ancestors.  Albeit with a more sophisticated way of expressing ourselves.


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