Monday, June 15, 2015

History is not made by politicians nor generals. The poeple who moved forward humanity were always enterprising individuals and inventors. Dreamers and adventurers, scientists and enterpreneurs who dared to create something new and to invest into them. Thanks to them and the investors supporting them humanity learned more about the world surrounding us, about the laws of nature and about how to make them serve us.

From Greek fire to the steam engine

In possession of Greek fire Constantinople ensured the stability required for the advancement of culture and science. Through centuries the Byzantines utilized the culture of their neighbours, primarily the knowledge of the Greeks and Arabs and passed on medical, mathematical, philosophical and scientific knowledge. Byzantine scientist contributed in conserving ancient Greek texts such as the classical sciences. That knowledge is a treasure!

In the 15th century more and more scientist left Constantinople and journeyed to the West, towards Italy. These Byzantine „exiles” played a pivotal role in the intellectual revolution of Italy which delivered Europe out of the dark ages of medieval times into a new direction of scientific development like mathematics, astronomy and physics.

This is the dawn of the modern era, the renaissance. The renaissance is the rebirth of the ancient western civilizations. Rediscovering knowledge from Greek and Roman texts left a great impression on how art and science developed. In this era art and science went hand in hand and nothing represents this better than the renaissance garden. According to renaissance thinking a garden represents the balance of human ingenuity and the beauty of nature. And this balance is embodied by renaissance fountains. The fountains of Villa d’Este near Rome are regarded as a masterpiece of engineering. Anywhere you look hundreds of jets of water sprinkle into pools, wells and troughs.

The powerful dynasties of the late renaissance, including the Medici family from Tuscany flaunted their wealth and influence by building majestic water constructs. When the fountains of the grand prince of Tuscany suddenly ran dry they asked the greatest scientist of their time to determine the cause of it. This scientist was none other than Galileo Galilei. He was a blind old man by then who was kept under house arrest because of his radical views about the nature of the universe. However not even Galilei who is regarded as the father of physics could find a satisfactory explanation. So he handed the problem over to his youngprotégée, the evangelist Torricelli.

Torricelli had a great idea and devised a surprisingly good theory that helped us better understand a substance around us all: air. What is more important that he proved the existence of something that was denied by everyone since the birth of the natural sciences. For centuries people thought that air is weightless. Up until the 17th century, when Torricelli the Italian physicist ascertained that not only air has weight but it also generates pressure that derives from a downwards force coming from its weight. Toricelliproved this by filling a tube with mercury and when he filled it up he sealed one end of the tube. He then put the other end of the tube into a bowl of mercury and opened it. The fact that mercury did not pour out of the tube into the bowl is because some kind of force had to affect the surface of the bowl of mercury. And this force could not be nothing else but the weight of air. What’s more important to this story is that this experiment unveiled another secret about nature which was also denied. Since air could not come into the tube the space created by the descending mercury was not filled with it. And this is what Torricelli was looking for, vacuum.

Today vacuum is available everywhere. We use it to clean, to illuminate, to pack food and it also keeps our coffee warm in our thermoses. But in the 17th century the idea of vacuum was the turning point of the renascence of scientific thinking. We will see here that it also played a pivotal role in another process which reformed the whole of human society, the industrial revolution.

Von Guericke, a German scientist, inventor and politician calculated that vacuum created like this could lift thousands of kilograms. To prove this point he used workhorses. The experiment he conducted showed the immense power of „nothing”. Using this force is a pivotal point in our story.

This story started with waterproof cement which led to double action pumps feeding aqueducts. These pumps combined with Greek fire helped defend Constantinople. The local scientists helped unfold the renascence which led to the creation of beautiful fountains. These inspiredproving the existence of vacuum.

The discovery of vacuum is the result of the practical need to defend the population. In the 18th century mining was the most dangerous job of the world. As mineshafts went deeper and deeper the danger grew. The lives of the miners were not just threatened by collapses or explosions but they were also at risk of encountering hidden water reservoirs that could flood the whole shaft. The question was how to create a vacuum powerful enough to suck out all the water from the depths of the mines. The question was answered by resourceful British engineers. You only need to boil water to create steam. We are of course talking about the steam engine. The cooling steam creates a vacuum which can be used to work water pumps. This machine had great power in this era. It could pump 3.5 million litres of water in only 4 hours. The steam engine became the most important invention of the industrial revolution. It not just revolutionised mining but also factories and transportation. It changed the world.

A Scottish entrepreneuringenuity made using the power of steam even more efficient. In 1763 mechanic James Watt was commissioned to repair the model of an early steam engine. Watt was frustrated how he couldn’t make the engine work for more than a few rotation so he started completely redesigning it. He worked for more than 4 years which resulted in a newer steam engine that was four times as powerful as its predecessor. Keeping this surplus power in check however was difficult.

Finding a solution to regulate the power of steam brought a break through that not just revolutionized industry but warfare as well. Thanks to James Watt people could completely utilize the potential of the steam engine. Watt now only had to find a way to keep the power in check. For that he needed two copper balls. The point was what happened between the objects revolving around the central axle.  Physicists called it centrifugal force and James Watt used it as the basis of his new instrument. This became the centrifugal governor.

The faster the axle spins the higher the objects rise. When they reach a certain height the throttle closes and the engine slows. As the weights descend they reach a new level where they open the throttle and the engine accelerates. This is how the centrifugal governor keeps a consistent speed. A simple yet ground-breaking innovation.Watt endowed engines with the capability to regulate themselves.

The Watt governor made workers unnecessary to supervise steam engines at mills and factories. Every factory worker was helped by dozens of governors in the background. If the steam engine was the driving force behind the industrial revolution then the governor was the brain.

This was all the consequence of a simple principle which is called feedback loop. The point is that a system can work between predefined parameters. Feedback loop soon became used in different types of mechanical system for example in ships, planes, trains and cars. At the dawn of the era of electricity the principal of a feedback loop was used when creating the telephone, the amplifier and operating electrical networks. Feedback loop soon became a matter of life and death.

Author: Béla Molnár

Tags: enterprising, inventors, scientists, invest

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