Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Westinghouse, Boeing, Gates and Tariffs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 10th, 2013

History 101

Ford brought the Price of Cars down and Paid his Workers more without Tariff Protection

Andrew Carnegie grew a steel empire in the late 19th century.  With technological innovation.  He made the steel industry better.  Making steel better.  Less costly.  And more plentiful.  Carnegie’s steel built America’s skylines.  Allowing our buildings to reach the sky.  And Carnegie brought the price of steel down without tariff protection.

John D. Rockefeller saved the whales.  By making kerosene cheap and plentiful.  Replacing whale oil pretty much forever.  Then found a use for another refined petroleum product.  Something they once threw away.  Gasoline.  Which turned out to be a great automotive fuel.  It’s so great that we use it still today.  Rockefeller made gasoline so cheap and plentiful that he put the competition out of business.  He was making gasoline so cheap that his competition went to the government to break up Standard Oil.  So his competition didn’t have to sell at his low prices.  And Rockefeller made gasoline so inexpensive and so plentiful without tariff protection.

Henry Ford built cars on the first moving assembly line.  Greatly bringing the cost of the car down.  Auto factories have fixed costs that they recover in the price of the car.  The more cars a factory can make in a day allows them to distribute those fixed costs over more cars.  Bringing the cost of the car down.  Allowing Henry Ford to do the unprecedented and pay his workers $5 a day.  Allowing his workers to buy the cars they assembled.  And Ford brought the price of cars down and paid his workers more without tariff protection.

George Westinghouse decreased the Cost of Electric Power without Tariff Protection

George Westinghouse gave us AC power.  Thanks to his brilliant engineer.  Nikola Tesla.  Who battled his former employer, Thomas Edison, in the Current Wars.  Edison wanted to wire the country with his DC power.  Putting his DC generators throughout American cities.  While Westinghouse and Tesla wanted to build fewer plants and send their AC power over greater distances.  Greatly decreasing the cost of electric power.  Westinghouse won the Current Wars.  And Westinghouse did that without tariff protection.

After losing out on a military contract for a large military transport jet Boeing regrouped and took their failed design and converted it into a jet airliner.  The Boeing 747.  Which dominated long-haul routes.  Having the range to go almost anywhere without refueling.  And being able to pack so many people into a single airplane that the cost per person to fly was affordable to almost anyone that wanted to fly.  And Boeing did this without tariff protection.

Bill Gates became a billionaire thanks to his software.  Beginning with DOS.  Then Windows.  He dominated the PC operating system market.  And saw the potential of the Internet.  Bundling his browser program, Internet Explorer, with his operating system.  Giving it away for free.  Consumers loved it.  But his competition didn’t.  As they saw a fall in sales for their Internet browser programs.  With some of their past customers preferring to use the free Internet Explorer instead of buying another program.  Making IE the most popular Internet browser on the market.  And Gates did this without tariff protection.

Tariff Protection cost American Industries Years of Innovation and Cost Cutting Efficiencies

Carnegie Steel became U.S. Steel.  Which grew to be the nation’s largest steel company.  Carnegie had opposed unions to keep the cost of his steel down.  U.S. Steel had a contentious relationship with labor.  During the Great Depression U.S. Steel unionized.  But there was little love between labor and management.  There were a lot of strikes.  And a lot of costly union contracts.  Which raised the price of U.S. manufactured steel.  Opening the door for less costly foreign imports.  Which poured into the country.  Taking a lot of business away from domestic steel makers.  Making it more difficult to honor those costly union contracts.  Which led the U.S. steel producers to ask the government for tariff protection.  To raise the price of the imported steel so steel consumers would not have a less costly alternative.

During World War II FDR was printing so much money to pay for both the New Deal and the war the FDR administration was worried about inflation.  So they put ceilings on what employers could pay their employees.  With jobs paying the same it was difficult to attract the best employees.  Because you couldn’t offer more pay.  So General Motors started offering benefits.  Health care.  And pensions.  Agreeing to very generous union contracts.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem until the imports hit our shores.  Then those union contracts became difficult to honor.  Which led the U.S. auto makers to ask the government for tariff protection.  To raise the price of those imported cars so Americans would not have a less costly alternative.

These two industries received their tariffs.  And other government protections.  Allowing them to continue with business as usual.  Even though business as usual no longer worked.  So while the foreign steel producers and auto makers advanced their industries to further increase quality and lower their costs the protected U.S. companies did not.  Because they didn’t have to.  For thanks to the government they didn’t have to please their customers.  As the government simply forced people to be their customers.  For awhile, at least.  The foreign products became better and better such that the tariff protection couldn’t make the higher quality imports costly enough to keep them less attractive than the inferior American goods.  With a lot of people even paying more for the better quality imports.  Losing years of innovation and cost cutting efficiencies due to their tariff protection these American industries that once dominated the world became shells of their former selves.  With General Motors and Chrysler having to ask the government for a bailout because of the health care and pension costs bankrupting them.  Something Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Westinghouse, Boeing or Gates never had to ask.

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Manual Hand Brake, Dynamic Braking and George Westinghouse’s Failsafe Railway Air Brake

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 17th, 2013

Technology 101

Getting a Long and Heavy Train Moving was no good unless you could Stop It

Trains shrank countries.  Allowing people to travel greater distances faster than ever before.  And move more freight than ever before.  Freight so heavy that no horse could have ever pulled it.  The only limitation was the power of the locomotive.  Well, that.  And one other thing.  The ability to stop a long and heavy train.  For getting one moving was pretty easy.  Tracks were typically level.  And steel wheels on steel rails offered little resistance.  So once a train got moving it didn’t take much to keep it moving.  Especially when there was the slightest of inclines to roll down.

Getting a long and heavy train moving was no good unless you could stop it.  And stopping one was easier said than done.  As trains grew longer it proved impossible for the locomotive to stop it alone.  So each car in the consist (the rolling stock the locomotive pulls behind it) had a manual brake.  Operated by hand.  By brakemen.  Running along the tops of cars while the train was moving.  Turning wheels that applied the brakes on each car.  Not the safest of jobs.  One that couldn’t exist today.  Because of the number of brakemen that died on the job.  Due to the inherent danger of running along the top of a moving train.  Luckily, today, all brakemen have lost their jobs.  As we have safer ways to stop trains.

Of course, we don’t need to just stop trains.  A lot of the time we just need to slow them down a little.  Such as when approaching a curve.  Going through a reduced speed zone (bad track, wooden bridge, going through a city, etc.).  Or going down a slight incline.  In fact slowing down on an incline is crucial.  For if gravity is allowed to accelerate a train down an incline it can lead to a runaway.  That’s when a train gathers speed with no way of stopping it.  It can derail in a curve.  It can run into another train.  Or crash into a terminal building full of people.   All things that have happened.  The most recent disaster being the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.  Where a parked oil train rolled away down an incline, derailed and exploded.  Killing some 38 people.  While many more are still missing and feared dead.

Dynamic Breaking can Slow a Train but to Stop a Train you need to Engage the Air Brakes

Trains basically have two braking systems today.  Air brakes.  And dynamic braking.  Dynamic braking involves changing the traction motors into generators.  The traction motors are underneath the locomotive.  The big diesel engine in the locomotive turns a generator making electric power.  This power creates powerful magnetic fields in the traction motors that rotate the axles.  The heavier the train the more power it takes to rotate these axles.  It takes a little skill to get a long and heavy train rolling.  Too much power and the steel wheels may slip on the steel rails.  Or the motors may require more power than the generator can provide.  As the torque required to move the train may be greater than traction motors can provide.  Thus ‘stalling’ the motor.  As it approaches stall torque it slows the rotation of the motor to zero while increasing the current from the generator to maximum.  As it struggles to rotate an axle it is not strong enough to rotate.  If this continues the maximum flow of current will cause excessive heat buildup in the motor windings.  Causing great damage.

Dynamic breaking reverses this process.  The traction motors become the generator.  Using the forward motion of the train to rotate the axles.  The electric power this produces feeds a resistive load that draws a heavy current form these traction motors.  Typically it’s the section of the locomotive directly behind the cab.  It draws more than the motors can provide.  Bringing them towards stall torque.  Thus slowing their rotation.  And slowing the train.  Converting the kinetic energy of the moving train into heat in the resistive load.  Which has a large cooling fan located above it to keep it from getting so hot that it starts melting.

Dynamic breaking can slow a train.  But it cannot stop it.  For as it slows the axles spin slower producing less electric power.  And as the electric current falls away it cannot ‘stall’ the generator (the traction motors operating as generators during dynamic braking).  Which is where the air brakes come in.  Which they can use in conjunction with dynamic braking on a steep incline.  To bring a train to a complete stop.  Or to a ‘quick’ stop (in a mile or so) in an emergency.  Either when the engineer activates the emergency brake.  Or something happens to break open the train line.  The air brake line that runs the length of the train.

When Parking a Train they Manually set the Hand Brakes BEFORE shutting down the Locomotive

The first air brake system used increasing air pressure to stop the train.  Think of the brake in a car.  When you press the brake pedal you force brake fluid to a cylinder at each wheel.  Forcing brake shoes or pads to come into contact with the rotating wheel.  The first train air brake worked similarly.  When the engineer wanted to stop the train he forced air to cylinders at each wheel.  Which moved linkages that forced brake shoes into contact with the rotating wheel.  It was a great improvement to having men run along the top of a moving train.  But it had one serious drawback.  If some cars separated from the train it would break open the train line.  So the air the engineer forced into it vented to the atmosphere without moving the brake linkages.  Which caused a runaway or two in its day.  George Westinghouse solved that problem.  By creating a failsafe railway air brake system.

The Westinghouse air brake system dates back to 1868.  And we still use his design today.  Which includes an air compressor at the engine.  Which provides air pressure to the train line.  Metal pipes below cars.  And rubber hoses between cars.  Running the full length of the train.  At each car is an air reservoir.  Or air tank.  And a triple valve.  Before a train moves it must charge the system (train line and reservoirs at each car) to, say, 90 pounds per square inch (PSI) of air pressure.  Once charged the train can move.  To apply the air brakes the engineer reduces the pressure by a few PSI in the train line.  The triple valve senses this and allows air to exit the air reservoir and enter the brake cylinder.  Pushing the linkages to bring the brake shoes into contact with the train wheels.  Providing a little resistance.  Slowing the train a little.  Once the pressure in the reservoir equals the pressure in the train line the triple valve stops the air from exiting the reservoir.  To slow the train more the engineer reduces the pressure by a few more PSI.  The triple valve senses this and lets more air out of the reservoir to again equalize the pressure in the reservoir and train line.  When the air leaves the reservoir it goes to the brake cylinder.  Moving the linkage more.  Increasing the pressure of the brake shoes on the wheels.  Further slowing the train.  The engineer continues this process until the train stops.  Or he is ready to increase speed (such as at the bottom of an incline).  To release the brakes the engineer increases the pressure in the train line.  Once the triple valve senses the pressure in the train line is greater than in the reservoir the air in the brake cylinders vents to the atmosphere.  Releasing the brakes.  While the train line brings the pressure in the reservoir back to 90 PSI.

This system is failsafe because the brakes apply with a loss of air pressure in the train line.  And if there is a rapid decline in air pressure the triple valve will sense that, too.  Say a coupler fails, separating two cars.  And the train line.  Causing the air pressure to fall from 90 PSI to zero very quickly.  When this happens the triple valve dumps the air in an emergency air reservoir along with the regular air reservoir into the brake cylinder.  Slamming the brake shoes onto the train wheels.  But as failsafe as the Westinghouse air brake system is it can still fail.  If an engineer applies the brakes and releases them a few times in a short period (something an experienced engineer wouldn’t do) the air pressure will slowly fall in both the train line and the reservoirs.  Because it takes time to recharge the air system (train line and reservoirs).  And if you don’t give it the time you will decrease your braking ability.  As there is less air in the reservoir available to go to the brake cylinder to move the linkages.  To the point the air pressure is so low that there isn’t enough pressure to push the brake shoes into the train wheels.  At this point you lose all braking.  With no ability to stop or slow the train.  Causing a runaway.

So, obviously, air pressure is key to a train’s air brake system.  Even if the train is just parked air will leak out of the train line.  If you’re standing near a locomotive (say at a passenger train station) and hear an air compressor start running it is most likely recharging the train line.  For it needs air pressure in the system to hold the brake shoes on the train wheels.  Which is why when they park a train they manually set the hand brakes (on a number of cars they determined will be sufficient to prevent the train from rolling) BEFORE shutting down the locomotive.  Once the ‘parking brake’ is set then and only then will they shut down the locomotive.  Letting the air bleed out of the air brake system.  Which appears to be what happened in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.  Preliminary reports suggest that the engineer may not have set enough hand brakes to prevent the train from rolling on the incline it was on when he parked the train for the night.  On a main line.  Because another train was on a siding.  And leaving the lead locomotive in a five locomotive lashup unmanned and running to maintain the air pressure.  Later that night there was a fire in that locomotive.  Before fighting that fire the fire department shut it down.  Which shut down the air compressor that was keeping the train line charged.  Later that night as the air pressure bled away the air brakes released and the hand brakes didn’t hold the train on the incline.  Resulting in the runaway (that may have reached a speed of 63 mph).  Derailment at a sharp curve.  And the explosion of some of its tank cars filled with crude oil.  Showing just how dangerous long, heavy trains can be when you can’t stop them.  Or keep them stopped.

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Windmills, Rotational Energy, Wing, Lift, Rotary Wing, Angle of Attack, Variable-Pitch Propellers, Drag, AC Power and Wind Turbine

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 27th, 2012

Technology 101

When an Aircraft Rotates for Takeoff it increases the Angle of Attack of the Wing to Create more Lift

Early windmills turned when the wind pushed a sail or vane.  Thereby converting wind energy into rotational energy.  Mechanical linkages and shafts transferred this rotational motion to power a mill.  Or pump water.  As well as an assortment of other tasks.  Whatever the task it was important to regulate the speed at which the shaft rotated.  Which meant turning the windmill into the wind.  And adjusting the amount of sail catching the wind.  Much like on a sailing ship.  At first by shutting the windmill down and manually adjusting the sails.  Then later automating this process while the windmill was turning.  If the winds were too strong they’d lock the windmill to prevent it from turning.  To prevent damaging the windmill.

They regulated the speed to protect the equipment attached to the windmill, too.  To prevent a mill stone from spinning too fast.  Risking damage to it.  And harm to the people working with the equipment.  Or to protect a water pump form pumping too fast.  Even the small farm windmills had over-speed protection.   These sat atop a well.  The windmill drove a small piston to pump the water up the well shaft.  To prevent this windmill from flying apart in high winds over-speed features either furled the blades or rotated the windmill parallel to the wind.  Shutting the pump down.

But wind just doesn’t push.  It can also lift.  A lateen (triangular) sail on a sailing vessel is similar to an aircraft wing.  The leading edge of the sail splits the wind apart.  Part of it fills the sail and pushes it.  Bowing it out into a curved surface.  The wind passing on the other side of the sail travels across this curved surface and creates lift.  Similar to how a wing operates during takeoff on a large aircraft.  With the trailing edge flaps extended it creates a large curve in the wing.  When the aircraft rotates (increasing the angle of attack of the wing) to take off wind passing under the wing pushes it up.  And the wind travelling over the wing pulls it up.  These lift forces are so strong that planes carry their fuel in the wings and mount engines on the wing to keep the wings from bending up too much from these forces of lift.

A Pilot will Feather the Propeller on a Failed Engine in Flight to Minimize Drag 

When an aircraft carrier launches its aircraft it turns into the wind.  To maximize the wind speed travelling across the wings of the aircraft.  For the faster the wind moves across the wing the great lift it creates.  Commercial airports don’t have the luxury of turning into the wind.  So they lay their runways out to correspond to the prevailing wind directions.  As weather systems move through the region they often reverse the direction of the wind.  When they do planes take off in the other direction.  If the winds are somewhere in between these two extremes some airports have another set of runways called ‘crosswind’ runways.  Or trust in the highly skilled pilots flying out of their airports to adjust the control surfaces on their planes quickly and delicately to correct for less than optimal winds.

Helicopters don’t have this problem.  They can take off facing in any direction.  Because that big propeller on top is a rotary wing.  Or rotor.  A fixed wing airplane needs forward velocity to move air over their wings to create lift.  A helicopter moves air over its rotary wing by spinning it through the air.  To create lift the pilot tilts the rotor blades to change their angle of attack.  And tilts the whole rotor in the direction of travel.  The helicopter’s engine runs at a constant RPM.  To increase lift the angle of attack is increased.  This also creates drag that increases the load on the engine, slowing it down.  So the pilot increases the throttle of the engine to return the rotor to that constant RPM.

Propeller-powered airplanes also have variable-pitch propellers.  To create the maximum possible lift at the lowest amount of drag.  So it’s not just engine speed determining aircraft speed.  When running up the engines while on the ground the pilot will feather the propellers.  So that the blade pitch is parallel to the airflow and moves no air.  This allows the engines to be run up to a high RPM without producing a strong blast of air behind it.  A pilot will also feather the prop on a failed engine in flight to minimize drag.  Allowing a single-engine plane to glide and a multiple engine plane to continue under the power of the remaining engines.  A pilot can even reverse the pitch of the propeller blades to reverse the direction of airflow through the propeller.  Helping planes to come to a stop on short runways.

By varying the Blade Pitch for Different Wind Speeds Wind Turbines can Maintain a Constant RPM

Thomas Edison developed DC electrical power.  George Westinghouse developed AC electrical power.  And these two went to war to prove the superiority of their system.  The War of the Currents.  Westinghouse won.  Because AC is economically superior.  One power plant can power a very large geographic area.  Because alternating current (AC) works with transformers.  Which stepped up voltages for long-distance power transmission.  And then stepped them back down to the voltages we use.  Power equals voltage times current.  Increasing the voltages allows lower currents.  Which allows thinner wires.  And fewer generating plants.  Which saves money.  Hence the economic superiority of AC power.

Alternating current works with transformers because the current alternates directions 60 times a second (or 60 cycles or hertz).  Every time the currents reverse an electrical field collapses in one set of windings of a transformer, inducing a voltage in another set of windings.  A generator (or, alternator) creates this alternating current by converting rotational energy into electrical energy.  Which brings us back to windmills.  A source of rotational energy.  Which we can also use to generate electrical energy.  But unlike windmills of old, today’s windmills, or wind turbines, turn from lift.   The wind doesn’t push the blades.  The wind passes over them producing lift.  Like on a wing.  Pulling them into rotation.

The typical wind turbine design is a three-bladed propeller attached to a nacelle sitting on top of a tall pylon.  The nacelle is about as large as a big garden shed or a small garage.  Inside the nacelle are the alternator and a gearbox.  And various control equipment.  Like windmills of old wind turbines still have to face into the wind.  We could do this easily and automatically by placing the propeller on the downwind side of the nacelle.  Making it a weathervane as well.  But doing this would put the pylon between the wind and the blades.  The pylon would block the wind causing uneven loading on the propeller producing vibrations and reducing the service life.  So they mount the propeller on the upwind side.  And use a complex control system to turn the wind turbine into the wind.

When it comes to electrical generation a constant rotation is critical.  How does this happen when the wind doesn’t blow at a constant speed?  With variable-pitched blades on the propeller.  By varying the blade pitch for different wind speeds they can maintain a constant number of revolutions per minute (RPM).  For a limited range of wind conditions, that is.  If the wind isn’t fast enough to produce 60 hertz they shut down the wind turbine.  They also shut them down in high winds to prevent damaging the wind turbine.  They can do this by feathering the blades.  Turning the propeller blades parallel to the wind.  Or with a mechanical brake.  The actual rotation of the propeller is not 60 cycles per second.  But it will be constant.  And the gearbox will gear it up to turn the alternator at 60 cycles per second.  Allowing them to attach the power they produce to the electric grid.

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Thomas Edison, Patents, Intellectual Property Rights, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, DC, AC and the War of Currents

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 27th, 2012

History 101

Thomas Edison protected his Intellectual Property Rights with over 1,000 Patents

Thomas Edison was a great inventor.  A great entrepreneur.  But he wasn’t a great scientist or engineer.  He was home-schooled by his mom.  And didn’t go to college.  But he read a lot.  And loved to tinker.  He grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.  At one end of the train line that ran between Port Huron and Detroit.  Where he sold newspapers and other things to commuters during the Civil War.  Then he saved the life of some kid.  Pulled him out of the way of a runaway boxcar.  The kid’s dad ran the train station.  Out of gratitude for saving his son’s life he taught the young Edison Morse Code.  And trained him to be a telegraph operator.  He mastered it so well that Edison invented a better telegraph machine.  The Quadruplex telegraph.  Because he liked to tinker.

What made him a great entrepreneur and not a great scientist or engineer is that his inventions had a commercial purpose.  He didn’t invent to solve life’s great mysteries.  He invented to make money.  By creating things so great that people would want them.  And pay money for them.  He also had an eye on production costs.  So he could build these things the people wanted at affordable prices.  For if they were too expensive the people couldn’t buy them.  And make him rich.  So his inventions used technology to keep production costs down while keeping consumer interest high.  Because of the profit incentive.  But the POSSIBILITY of profits wasn’t enough to push Edison to set up his invention lab.  Where he employed a team of inventors to work full time inventing things.  And figuring out how to mass-produce inventions that made everyone’s life better.  He needed something else.  Something that GUARANTEED Edison could profit from his inventions.  The patent.  That gave the patent holder exclusive rights to profit from their invention.

Inventors and entrepreneurs spend a lot of money inventing things.  They do this because they know that they can file a patent when they invent something that people will buy.  Protecting their intellectual property rights.  So they alone can profit from the fruit of all their labors.  And Edison was one of these inventors.  One of the most prolific inventors of all time.  Filing over 1,000 patents.  Including one on the incandescent light bulb.  Which was going to replace gas lamps and candles.  And provided a need for another new invention.  Electric power distribution.  Something else he spent a lot of time tinkering with.  Producing electrical generators.  And an electric power distribution system.  Which was going to make him an even richer man.  As he held the patents for a lot of the technology involved.  However, he was not to become as rich as he had hoped on his electric power distribution system.  Not for any patent infringements.  But because of a mistreated former employee who had a better idea.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battled each other in the War of Currents

Nikola Tesla was a brilliant electrical engineer.  But not a great entrepreneur.  So he worked for someone who was.  Thomas Edison.  Until Edison broke a promise.  He offered a substantial bonus to Tesla if he could improve Edison’s electric power generating plants.  He did.  And when he asked for his bonus Edison reneged on his promise.  Telling the immigrant Tesla that he didn’t understand American humor.  Angry, Tesla resigned and eventually began working for George Westinghouse.  An Edison competitor.  Who appreciated the genius of Tesla.  And his work.  Especially his work on polyphase electrical systems.  Using an alternating current (AC).  Unlike Edison’s direct current (DC).  Bringing Edison and Tesla back together again.  In war.

Direct current had some limitations.  The chief being that DC didn’t work with transformers.  While AC did.  With transformers you could change the voltage of AC systems.  You could step the voltage up.  And step it back down.  This gave AC a huge advantage over DC.  Because power equals current multiplied by voltage (P=I*E).  To distribute large amounts of power you needed to generate a high current.  Or a high voltage.  Something both DC and AC power can do.  However, there is an advantage to using high voltages instead of high currents.  Because high currents need thicker wires.  And we make wires out of copper or aluminum.  Which are expensive.  And the DC wires have to get thicker the farther away they get from the generator plant.  Meaning that a DC generating plant could only serve a small area.  Requiring numerous DC power plants to meet the power requirements of a single city.  Whereas AC power could travel across states.  Making AC the current of choice for anyone paying the bill to install an electric distribution system.

So the ability to change voltages is very beneficial.  And that’s something DC power just couldn’t do.  What the generator generated is what you got.  Not the case with AC power.  You can step it up to a higher voltage for distribution.  Then you can step it down for use inside your house.  Which meant a big problem for Edison.  For anyone basing their decision on price alone would choose AC.  So he declared war on AC power.  Saying that it was too dangerous to bring inside anyone’s house.  And he proved it by electrocuting animals.  Including an elephant.  And to show just how lethal it was Edison pushed for its use to replace the hangman’s noose.  Saying that anything as deadly as what states used to put prisoners to death was just too deadly to bring into anyone’s house.  But not even the electric chair could save Edison’s DC power.  And he lost the War of Currents.  For Tesla’s AC power was just too superior to Edison’s DC power not to use. 

Nikola Tesla was a Brilliant Engineer who Preferred Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe over Business

George Westinghouse would get rich on electrical distribution.  Thanks to Nikola Tesla.  And the patents for the inventions he could have created for Thomas Edison.  If he only recognized his genius.  Which he lamented near death as his greatest mistake.  Not appreciating Tesla.  Or his work.  But Edison did well.  As did Westinghouse.  They both died rich.  Unlike Tesla.

Westinghouse could have made Tesla a very rich man.  But his work in high voltage, high frequency, wireless power led him away from Westinghouse.  For he wanted to provide the world with free electric power.  By creating power transmitters.  That could transmit power wirelessly.  Where an electric device would have an antenna to receive this wireless power.  He demonstrated it to some potential investors.  He impressed them.  But lost their funding when they asked one question.  Where does the electric meter go?  Free electric power was a noble idea.  But nothing is truly free.  Even free power.  Because someone had to generate that power.  And if you didn’t charge those using that power how were you going to pay those generating that power?

Edison and Westinghouse were great entrepreneurs.  Whereas Tesla was a brilliant engineer.  He preferred unraveling the mysteries of the universe over business.  Tesla probably suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Think of the character Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory television sitcom.  He was a lot like that character.  Brilliant.  Odd.  And interested in little else but his work.  He lived alone.  And died alone.  A bachelor.  Living in a two-room hotel room in the last decade of his life.  Despite his inventions that changed the world.  And the fortunes he made for others.  Sadly, Tesla did not die a rich man.  Like Edison and Westinghouse.  But he did live a long life.  And few men or women changed the world like he did.  A brilliant mind that comes around but once in a millennium.

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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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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #11: “Before you condemn capitalism, imagine a world without professional sports, movies, cell phones and tampons.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 27th, 2010

PEOPLE HAVE SOME strong opinions about capitalism.  Both good and bad.  So what is it?  What is capitalism?

Merriman Webster OnLine defines it as:

An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

To explain this let’s start by explaining what it replaced.  In fact, let’s go further back.  A few hundred years when life truly sucked by our standards.  During the Middle Ages, people barely lived.  People worked very hard and had little time off.  When they did they usually spent it sleeping, being sick, dying or being dead.  You grew or killed what you ate.  You built your own house.  You made your own clothes.  You died probably no further than a short walk from where you were born.  And you worked your whole life somewhere in between.

Think of peasant or serf.  That’s what most were.  Tied to the land.  You had no choices.  If you were born on the land you worked the land.  Until you died.  The land owned you and someone owned the land.  You worked the land at the grace of the owner.  You helped produce his food and, in return, he let you have a small parcel of land to grow your food.  There was a bond of loyalty between landlord and tenant.  Land and protection in exchange for backbreaking, never-ending labor.  Doesn’t sound good until you consider the alternative.  Death by famine.  Or death by murder at the hands of roving bands of outlaws.

Improvements in farming led to more food production.  Eventually, there were food surpluses.  This meant not everyone had to farm.  Some could do other things.  And did.  They became specialists.  Artisans.  Craftsmen.  Cities grew in response to commerce.  People went to market to trade for things they wanted.  Then they started using money, which made getting the things they wanted easier (it’s easier to go to the market with a coin purse than with a sack of grain or a side of beef).  Life got better.  People enjoyed some of it.

THUS BEGAN THE rise of a middle class.  Those city folk making things or doing something.  They were good at what they did and people gladly paid for what they did.  These specialists then improved what they did and thought of new things to do.  They created things to make their work easier.  These individual specialists grew into manufacturing shops.  The cost of production only limited their output.  And banking solved that problem.

Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a capitalist.  And he thought big.  Money is nice but what can it get you?  A few things for the home?  Something for the wife?  Maybe some new farm tools.  Good stuff, yes, but nothing big.  Lots of little sums of money all over the place can buy lots of little things.  But when you pool lots of little sums of money you get one big-ass pile of it.  That money is now capital.  And you can do big things with it.

And that’s what banking has given us.  People with ideas, entrepreneurs, could now borrow money to bring their ideas to market.  And this is, in a nutshell, capitalism.  The free flow of ideas and capital to make life better.  Making life better wasn’t necessarily the objective; it’s just the natural consequence of people mutually partaking in a free market.

BUT WHAT ABOUT the Soviet Union?  Didn’t they do big things, too?  They built jetliners.  They had a space program.  They had factories.  They did these and other things without capitalism.  They did these things for the good of the people, not for profits.  Isn’t that better?

Talk to someone who wiped their ass with Soviet-era toilet paper.  Let me save you the trouble.  It didn’t feel good.  Unless you enjoy the feel of sandpaper back there.  And to add insult to injury, you had to wait in line to get that toilet paper.  If it was available.

When you think of the Soviet economy you have to think of stores with empty shelves and warehouses full of stuff no one wants.  This is what a command economy does for you.  Some bureaucrat, not the consumer, determines what to sell.  And one person simply cannot figure out what a hundred million plus want.  To get an idea of how difficult this is, pick a movie that 4 of your friends would love to see.  Pick a couple of guys and a couple of girls.  For diversity.  And remove the possibility of sex completely from the equation.  Now pick.  Not so easy, is it?  Now try to pick a movie a hundred million people would love to see.  Can’t do it, can you?  No one can.  Because people are diverse.  One size doesn’t fit all.

Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev asked Margaret Thatcher how she made sure her people had enough food to eat.  The Soviets were having difficulty feeding theirs.  In fact, they were importing grain from their archenemy.  The United States.  The answer to Gorbachev’s answer was that Thatcher did nothing to feed her people.  The free market fed her people.  Capitalism.

As far as those other big things the Soviets did, they acquired a lot of the knowledge to do those things through an elaborate network of espionage.  They stole technology and copied it.  And they were the first into space because their captured Nazi rocket scientists did it before our captured Nazi rocket scientists did.  (The seed of the space industry was the Nazi V-2 rocket that reigned terror on London and other cities during World War II).

(Lest you think that I’m ripping on the Soviet/Russian people, I’m not.  Just their economic system during the Soviet era.  Their people have suffered.  And persevered.  It was them after all who first threw back Napoleon in Europe.  And it was them who first threw back the Nazis in Europe.  They gave us Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky and, of course, Maria Sharapova to name just a few of the greats.  Good people.  Just sometimes bad government.  As in most nations.  Even in the U.S.)

SO WHAT IS the basic difference between capitalism and a command economy like that of the former Soviet Union?  Probably the freedom to take and accept risk.  Bankers take a risk in loaning money.  They analyze the risk.  If the return on the loan is greater than the risk, they’ll make the loan.  It’s their call.  And they’re pretty good.  Their successes are far greater than their failures.

Some loans are riskier than others.  There’s a greater chance of failure.  But it could also be the next, say, Microsoft.  Or Apple.  If so, even though there’s great risk, the potential of reward is so great that people will want to loan money.  They’ll buy junk bonds (high risk/high yield) or an initial public offering of stock.  They’ll risk their money for a greater return on their investment.  If it pays off.  And they don’t always do.  But good ideas with potential typically find financing.  And investors typically make more money than they lose.  It’s a pretty good system.  Capitalism.

WHEN YOU HAVE risk takers who choose to participate in the free flow of ideas and capital, great things happen.  Modern AC electrical power that we take for granted is invented (thank you Nikola Tesla for the genius and George Westinghouse for taking the risk).  You develop modern commercial jet aviation (thank you Boeing for the 707, 727, 737, 747, well, you get the picture).  You transform the world when you add impurities to semiconducting material and sandwich them together (thank you John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William B. Shockley for the transistor).

These great things, along with others, give us professional sports (stadiums, transportation to and from the stadium, jetliners to take teams to other stadiums, oil exploration and refining for jet and car fuel, etc.).  They give us movies (financing, cameras and production equipment, special effects, theaters, popcorn, DVDs for home viewing, etc.).  They give us cell phones (cellular towers, switching networks, compact and long lasting batteries, interactive handheld devices, voicemail, email, texting, etc.).  And they liberated women to do whatever they want wherever they want by making feminine hygiene protection portable and plentiful (mass production, rail and truck transport, retail and vending outlets, etc.) and by providing convenient privacy (public toilet facilities with vending machines and disposal bins). 

Imagine any of these things provided by the same people who renew our driver’s license.  Do you think any of it would be as good?  Or do you think it would be more like Soviet-era life?  There’s so much we take for granted in capitalism because we can.  It’s a system that works on basic human nature.  It doesn’t require sacrifice.  It doesn’t depend on consensus.  It just needs the free flow of ideas and capital.  And great things follow.

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