Engineers are driven by a need to make things work better. They use creativity, maths and science to invent, build and maintain a variety of machines, structures, and even entire systems. If you’ve been enjoying our Ingenious Engineering issue, you’ll know that, in many, many, MANY ways, we have engineering to thank for our modern way of life. Want to know more? Check out these EXCELLENT engineering facts.
Did you know that the very first human-powered land vehicles looked nothing like the ones we use today? In 1418, an Italian engineer named Giovanni Fontana built a human-powered, four-wheeled device that could be driven using a loop of rope connected by gears. Alas, Giovanni’s ‘bike’ design didn’t catch on. In fact, it wasn’t until about 400 years later that a German aristocrat by the name of Karl von Drais designed his Laufmaschine – or ‘dandy horse’. Drais was working at a time when horses were in short supply due to a series of bad harvests and wars. He recognised the need for a mode of travel that did not rely on horse-power. The dandy horse didn’t have pedals or gears, or brakes! They also tended to be very heavy and quite dangerous. In New York City, a law was passed to ban dandy horses from all footpaths and public spaces. Today, though, 30 per cent of adult New Yorkers ride a bike, so poor old Drais must have been onto something!
If you have a proper need for speed, you’re going to be looking for something a bit faster than a Laufmaschine. The fastest public train currently in existence is the Shanghai Maglev, which can reach speeds of up to 460 kph (286 mph). Maglev trains don’t use traditional wheels or tracks. Instead, there are powerful magnets on the train and rails that lift the train about 10 cm into the air, propelling it forwards. There is no friction, so passengers can enjoy a smooth and speedy ride. At full speed, the Shanghai Maglev can travel 30 km between Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Now that’s a quick commute, there’s barely even time to pop to the loo!
Talking of toilets, did you know that simply visiting the lavatory involves interacting with some major feats of engineering? And it’s not just the throne itself. Wastewater treatment and sanitation systems are extremely complex and important. To keep the population well, they have to be carefully designed, built, managed and maintained. If you have access to clean water, a safe toilet and a proper sewer, you’re one of the lucky ones. In some countries, lack of sanitation is a huge challenge; 4.2 billion people are currently living without safe sanitation, and climate change is impacting access to clean water in many places across the globe. Environmental engineers have been tasked with discovering new ways to conserve fresh water and treat wastewater. Let’s hope someone somewhere has a lightbulb moment. Could that person be you?
On the subject of lightbulb moments, the world’s longest lasting working lightbulb is Livermore’s Centennial Bulb, installed at 4550 East Avenue, Livermore, California. It belongs to the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department, and was first installed in 1901, over 120 years ago! During that time, it has rarely been switched off.
Someone else who rarely switched off was Herman Potočnik, better known as Herman Noordung. Born in 1892, in a part of the world that is now in Croatia, he designed a rotating structure that was filled with science labs and astronauts’ living quarters, and powered by a centrally located solar generator. It was the first design of its kind, and paved the way for real-life space stations, including the International Space Station (ISS). Herman made his drawings way back in 1929! Does it surprise you to learn that the original concept for a modern space station was born way before we sent humans into space? The ISS is the biggest object ever flown in space. It has a mass of about 420,000 kg and measures 108 metres from end to end, which is about the size of an American football field.
You might not have heard of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge but you’ve probably seen it in the background of a movie or two. It’s the longest suspension bridge in the world – a pretty impressive feat of engineering. Emily Warren was born in New York city, in 1843. In 1865, at the age of 22, she married Washington Roebling, the man who’d been put in charge of building the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1870, Washington fell very ill with decompression sickness as a result of his work on the bridge. He was unable to continue his daily tasks, so Emily took over. She managed the construction on Washington’s behalf, acting as secretary and liaising between Washington and the engineers, contractors and city officials who were involved in the project. At this time women weren’t generally considered to be as intelligent or able as their male counterparts, so it was hard for Emily to win the respect of all of these men. But Emily had learned all about materials, stress analysis and cable construction. She was also able to communicate clearly and effectively, taking over her husband’s duties as chief engineer. When the bridge was finally completed, in 1883, Emily climbed into her carriage and became the first to cross it. She held a cockerel in her arms as a symbol of victory. Which is odd, because she certainly was no chicken!
And now to our very favourite invention (for obvious reasons – we are a magazine after all). I’m talking about biscuits PRINT! Now, the printing press as we know it was invented around 1436 by a goldsmith named Johanne Gutenberg. But did you know that woodblock printing dates back to the ninth century in China, and Korean bookmakers were already using moveable metal type over 100 years before Gutenberg? Choe Yun-ui was a Korean politician, publisher and writer who lived during the Korean Goryeo dynasty. Between 1234 and 1241, he used moveable metal type to print and publish 50 copies of a book called Sangjeong Gogeum Yemum – to establish the system of official uniforms for the dynasty and to avoid conflict in the region. Without the invention of moveable type, we wouldn’t have mass produced books OR AQUILA magazine. And that, well. It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?
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Words: Freya Hardy