Wheel and Axle

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 8th, 2013

Technology 101

The Key to the Wheel and Axle is the different Angular Velocities of the Outer Surfaces of the Axle and Wheel

Have you ever tried to turn a screw using only your fingers?  You might be able to get it started and spin it a few rotations.  But eventually you’ll be unable to turn the screw any further.  If you use a screw driver, though, you’ll be able to turn the screw all the way in.  Why?  For the same reason you can turn the handle on the spigot when you want to water the grass.  And why you can open the door when you enter your home.  Because of a wheel and axle.

The wheel and axle is one of six simple machines.  The others being the lever, the inclined plane, the pulley, the wedge and the screw.  The wheel and axle are two circular parts whose outer surfaces rotate at different speeds.  Think of a large wagon wheel.  Wooden spokes connect the outer rim of the wheel (the felloes) to the hub.  Imagine the wheel turning one quarter turn.  The end of the spoke at the felloes has to cover more distance than the end of the spoke at the hub.  Therefore the spoke end at the felloes travels faster than the spoke end at the hub.

In the ideal machine power in equals power out.  And power equals the torque (twisting force) multiplied by the angular velocity (how fast something spins around).  The key to the wheel and axle is the different angular velocities of the outer surfaces of the axle and wheel.  If power remains the same while the angular velocity changes then the torque must change.  Let’s use some meaningless numbers to illustrate this point.  The angular velocity is 4 and the torque is 2 on a wheel’s surface and the angular velocity is 2 and the torque is 4 on an axle.  Power in equals 8 while power out also equals 8.  But the torque increases.  So using the wheel and axle gives us mechanical advantage.  The ability to amplify force to do useful work for us.

Mechanical Advantage amplifies our Input Force to do Useful Work for Us

What makes a screwdriver work is the handle on it that we grip.  Which represents the outer surface of the wheel.  While the metal shaft the handle fastens to is the axle.  The handle provides a larger surface for our hand to grip.  Allowing us to apply a greater turning force (torque) to the handle than we could to the metal shaft.  The angular velocity of the surface of the handle is greater than the metal shaft.  So the torque of the metal shaft is greater than the torque we apply to the handle of the screwdriver.

The mechanical advantage amplifies our input force to do useful work for us.  To turn a screw that our fingers aren’t strong enough to turn.  Just as the handle on the water spigot allows us to twist it open.  And the door knob allows us to twist open the latching mechanism to open a door.  Things we couldn’t do without a large handle to grasp and twist.  To amplify our limited force.  To do useful work.

The old-fashioned water well is another example.  Across the top of the well is an axle.  A length of rope long enough to reach the water below is attached to a bucket.  The other end is attached to the axle.  Also attached to the axle is a wheel that we can turn by hand.  Or a hand crank.  As we turn the wheel or crank the rope wraps around the axle.  Pulling up the bucket full of water.  The speed of our hand spinning the wheel or the crank is greater than the speed of the spinning axle.  That is, our input angular velocity is reduced.  Which increases the torque on the axle.  Allowing it to pull up a heavy bucket of water that we couldn’t do as easily without the wheel and axle.

Using more Gears in a Gear Train can greatly Reduce the Angular Velocity which Greatly Increases the Output Force

We can amplify our input force more by adding some additional wheels.  And some gears.  For example, when we started harvesting sugarcane we used a mechanical press to squeeze the juice out of the cane.  And we did this by running the sugarcane through a couple of rollers with a narrow gap between them.  Crushing and pulling this cane through these rollers, though, required a lot of force.  Which we produced with a couple of wheels and axles.  One axle was the roller.  Attached to this axle was a large wheel.  Only we didn’t turn this wheel.  This wheel was a large gear.  Its teeth meshed with the teeth of a smaller gear on another axle.  Attached to this second axle was another wheel.  With a hand crank attached to it.

When we turned this wheel we rotated the small gear on the hand-crank axle.  This gear turned the larger gear attached to the roller axle.   Which pulled and crushed the cane through the press.  This reduced the angular velocity twice.  Thus increasing the torque twice.  Which twice amplified our input force.  Using more gears in a gear train can greatly reduce the angular velocity from the input axle to the output axle.  Greatly increasing the output force.  Like in a motor vehicle.  The engine spins at a high angular velocity.  The power output of the engine spins a gear train inside a transmission.  Greatly reducing the output angular velocity.  While greatly increasing the turning force sent to the drive wheels.

High-spinning electric motors have replaced the hand-crank on modern sugarcane presses.  These use a gear train or a belt and pulley system (or both) to reduce the spinning speed of the electric motor.  So when the force turns the rollers it doesn’t pull the cane through dangerously fast.  It pulls it through slow but with great force.  Which will flatten the cane and squeeze every last drop of fluid from it.  Or someone’s hand if it gets caught in the rollers.  Which usually have hand-guards around them to prevent that from happening.  But some people still operate machines that have no such guards as they hand-feed the cane into the press.  This is a disadvantage of using mechanical advantage.  For it can cause great harm just as easily as it can do useful work for us.

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The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2012

Technology 101

(Original published December 21st, 2011)

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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Jobs and Unemployment, Taxpayers and Tax Consumers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 19th, 2012

Economics 101

The Privileged Class enjoys the Good Life Today by Buying Votes with Government Benefits

Jobs are everything.  They pay your bills.  They pay the government’s bills.  And they pay for all those government benefits.  Especially those government benefits.  Which are little more than a pyramid scheme.  Where the few collecting those benefits are at the top of the pyramid.  And those with the jobs paying the taxes to fund those benefits are at the bottom.  And every good pyramid scheme needs to do one thing.  To keep the base growing at a greater rate than the top grows.

Why do politicians do this?  Give out so many benefits?  Simple.  For votes.  Specifically, to buy votes.  We’ve come a long way from the Founding Fathers’ America.  Adam Smith’s invisible hand and free market capitalism.  Representative government.  The things that let all people enjoy life.  Not just the noble class.  This change began in England.  Ironically with the noble class.  Who presented Magna Carta (1215) to King John.  Saying they paid the taxes.  So they were going to have a say in how the king spent those taxes.  As well as protect their privileges and liberties.  And Parliament was born.  Changing England forever.  The American Founding Fathers built on this.  And improved on England’s form of government.  The constitutional monarchy.  By getting rid of it.  Along with heredity power.  And the nobility.  The Founding Fathers had put an end to privilege.  Pity it didn’t last.

There has always been a privileged class.  And there will always be one.  There will always be a small elite group trying to live a privileged life.  Once we called them the aristocratic landowners.  Today we call them politicians and government workers.  Who are a little craftier than their landowning forbears.  For they just can’t have the right last name.  Or marry a good last name.  Because, technically, there is no aristocracy these days.  No.  They need the taxpayers to vote them this good life.  And fund it.  By paying higher taxes.  Which means the taxpayers will live less of a good life to give the politicians and government workers their privileged life.  Hence the government benefits.  And the buying of votes.  Because no taxpayer in their right mind will sacrifice their good life to support a privileged class.  The nobility wouldn’t do it for King John in 1215.  And taxpayers won’t do it now.  So the privileged class buys votes with these benefits.  Particularly from those who don’t pay taxes.

Jobs Matter because the Taxes of the Taxpayers have to balance the Consumption of the Tax Consumers

There are two types of people in the world.  Those who like high taxes.  And those who don’t.  Those who like them are the politicians and government workers who live a privileged life.  And, of course, those who don’t pay taxes but receive government benefits (another steadily growing group).  These are the tax consumers.  Then you have those who don’t like high taxes.  Those with real jobs in the private sector.  The taxpayers.  As government grew from our Founding so did the number of tax consumers.  Which, of course, required more taxes.  And higher tax rates.  On the shrinking group of people with jobs paying the taxes.  To support the growing group of politicians, government workers and recipients of those government benefits consuming those taxes.

This complicates the pyramid scheme.  As you have fewer people supporting more people each taxpayer has to pay a larger and larger share of the tax burden to support the tax consumers.  Meaning you have to increase tax rates further.  Which isn’t easy to do.  Worse, as workers pay more in taxes they have less to spend in the economy.  Thus reducing economic activity.  Businesses hire fewer workers.  As more businesses go through this the unemployment rate begins to rise.  Which means, of course, the number of taxpayers begins to fall.  Making it harder to provide the taxes for the tax consumers.  A group that continues to grow even when the unemployment rate rises.  Because government is like a bacteria.  It takes on a life of its own and grows simply by splitting and creating new bureaucracies.  A growth that never stops.  And soon the rate of that growth overtakes the growth rate of the taxpayers.  Violating the one cardinal rule of pyramid schemes.  Keeping the base growing at a greater rate than the top grows.

This is why jobs matter.  For everyone.  The taxpayers.  And tax consumers.  Because the taxes of the taxpayers have to balance the consumption of the tax consumers.  A fact lost on many voters.  Who don’t understand (or don’t care) that the freer their ride the less free the life of the taxpayer.  Who believe these government benefits can keep coming no matter how many people are working.  They are perfectly all right with the unemployment rate going to 100%.  And having the government provide everything free of charge.  But government can’t do this.  Even with the power of the printing press to print money and give it away.  Because if no one works who is going to build the houses we buy with that free government money? 

Taxpayers voting on How the Government Spends their Money ensures Responsible Government Spending

Someone has to work.  Because houses (and the other things we buy) don’t spontaneously appear.  So who will build them?  Would you labor to build something when the government gives you money?  Even if you don’t have to work?  Probably not.  The only reason we work is for a paycheck to buy the things we want.  The more things we want the harder we work.  That’s incentive.  Take it away and no one will work.  Just as if you tax someone too much you’ll take away their incentive to work harder.  And to vote to raise taxes.  Which is why jobs matter.  Because they pay the bills.  They pay your bills.  They pay the government’s bills.  And they pay the bill for all those government benefits.

Politicians can buy votes by giving away more government benefits.  Converting taxpayers into tax consumers.  Preserving their privileged life.  However, there is a limit to this.  Because as you convert taxpayers into tax consumers you reduce the tax revenue to pay for those benefits.  Especially during periods of high unemployment.  And if they raise tax rates to make up for the reduction in taxpayers this will increase both the rate and duration of unemployment.  By increasing the cost of doing business.  And leaving workers with less money to spend.  Both of which reduce sales revenue.  And the need for workers.  Over time this combination of high spending obligations and low tax revenue can have dire consequences.  And can bankrupt cities.  States.  Even countries.

This is why the nobles met King John on the field of Runnymede.  And presented him Magna Carta.  The nobles were paying a lot of taxes for the king’s wars on the Continent.  If the king continued he could have bankrupted them.  So by making the king apply his Great Seal to Magna Carta they were forcing him to, among other things, spend responsibly.  As they, the taxpayers, now had a say in how the king spent their taxes.  The only way to ensure responsible government spending.  And when politicians and government workers maintain their privilege by having those who don’t pay taxes vote to raise taxes on those who do it removes all responsibility from government spending.  So they spend.  And they tax.  To pay for that spending.  Hurting job creation in the process.  Which is a very big problem.  For jobs are everything.

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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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The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 21st, 2011

Technology 101

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

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