July 2, 2013 9:53 am
Three hundred and fifteen years ago today Thomas Savery’s patented the steam engine. His patent included no pictures, simply the following description:
”A new invention for raising of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire, which will be of great use and advantage for drayning mines, serveing townes with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefitt of water nor constant windes.”
Savery’s patent wasn’t entirely well received at the time. He was a military engineer, and the Surveyor of the Navy wasn’t at all interested in servicemen trying to come up with new ideas. He said of Savery’s patent application, “And have interloping people, that have no concern with us, to do to pretend to contrive or invent things for us?”
Today, Savery’s version of the steam engine is known as the Savery Pump. Here’s how it works, from Michigan State University:
The Savery pump required pressurized steam to force the water upwards. Water could be pushed upwards limited only by pressure of the steam. Savery writes: “my engine at 60, 70, or 80 feet raises a full bore of water with much ease.” The boiler would have needed to hold 35 psig pressure to raise water 80 feet- similar to the pressure in an automobile tire. It is likely that this use of such pressure was a reason that the Savery pump had a reputation for boiler explosions. Zealous operators undoubtedly increased the boiler pressure to pump water upwards further, and thus created some of the accidents by overpressurization.
To make his invention more popular, Savery wrote a little pamphlet called “The Miner’s Friend: or, A Description of an Engine to Raise Water by Fire.” He distributed the pamphlet around mining areas like Cornwall, hoping to get miners to use his pump in their mines. Many miners didn’t take him up on it, however, because they were afraid of the pumps exploding due to over pressurization. Their fears were certainly justified, as steam engine explosions were not uncommon. The book Safety-valves: their history, antecedents, invention and calculations explains:
It is not uncommon for a coroner’s jury, while attempting to ascertain the cause of some disastrous boiler explosion, to be told by the confident witness (he is always on hand in strong force in such occasions) that “the safety valves were all right, as they had been examined an hour before the explosion occurred.”
After Savery, many engineers improved upon the steam engine design, to give us things like trains and steam-powered ships. And the steam engine chugs along today, with steam turbines generating about 80 percent of the power we use on Earth.
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May 15, 2013 11:21 am
Up on the roof of a research building in Regina*, Saskatchewan, the Canadian province that straddles Montana and North Dakota, Samar Baker-Ismail has a tarp filled with poo. Little brown pucks of cow manure that bake in the sun and freeze in the winter, where temperatures regularly drop below 5 degrees.
Baker-Ismail is working with Barbara Cade-Menun, tracking how bacteria such as E. coli survive the harsh prairie winters. “[I]f E. coli can survive here, they’ll survive anywhere,” says the CBC. The research has important implications for people living in or downstream of agricultural regions as E. coli in your water can be a very bad thing.
Thirteen years ago this month tragedy struck a small Ontario, Canada, town when E. coli bacteria got into the water system. In Walkerton, Ontario, a town of 5,000 people, 2,300 fell ill suffering from “bloody diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever.” Seven people died. Over time, the tragedy was traced to manure spread on a nearby farm that had managed to carry the E. coli bacteria through the ground and into the town’s water system. That, alongside regulatory missteps, caused the preventable disaster—the “most serious case of water contamination in Canadian history.”
Though steps have been taken in the region to prevent similar disasters in the future, there is still much that is unknown about how E. coli moves through a watershed. From her rooftop investigation Cade-Menun found that E. coli are sneaky little bacteria.
Cade-Menun and her colleagues found that when the temperature plummets the frozen manure pucks seem to be bacteria-free. But the bacteria aren’t dead, and when the spring warmth returns so too do the bacteria.
*This post was updated to clarify where the research was conducted, and that the project work was being done by Samar Baker-Ismail
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March 28, 2013 3:46 pm
Ocean-loving director James Cameron is supporting future deep sea exploration by donating the $10 million submersible that he used to venture into the sea’s deepest spot last year. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will inherit the vehicle, and according to the New York Times, the undersea craft will help in designing more advanced vehicles and technologies.
Cameron timed the announcement to coincide with the anniversary of his seven-mile solo dive last year into the lowest point of the Mariana Trench, the Challenger Deep. Unfortunately, Cameron didn’t find much. As PCMag reported last year, Cameron said the landscape was an almost “completely featureless … almost gelatinous flat plain.” But Cameron’s submersible—the only one currently capable of carrying a person seven miles deep—was a notable proof of concept.
According to the Times, Woods Hole should receive the vehicle sometime in June.
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February 11, 2013 3:50 pm
Fifty years ago today, poet and author Sylvia Plath quietly placed a tray with a couple glasses of milk next to her two sleeping children, then walked to the kitchen, shut the door, sealed the cracks with wet towels and put her head in the oven. If she had not committed suicide at the age of 30, Plath could still be alive today. But cultural fascination with her continues to burn brightly despite—or perhaps because of—her premature departure from this world.
During her short life, Plath wrote prolifically, and her works eventually earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. But despite countless scholars dedicating themselves to Plath’s work and our broader obsession with her work and life, the poet’s work still continues to deliver surprises.
Katie Roiphe, a professor at NYU, speculates in Slate that Plath’s famous poem, “Daddy,” is actually about her much-despised mother.
In reading the angry, crashing lines of the poem—“Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you”—one naturally thinks that she must be talking about a male oppressor, about her father. But Plath’s father, a German entomologist who loved bees, and died after a long period of sickness when Sylvia was 8, was a paler figure in her life, a less looming or domineering force than her mother; of course, one can harbor strong, mysterious feelings about a parent who died when one is young, but it is her mother with whom she is locked in a furious lifelong struggle.
Again and again throughout her works, Plath expressed a “total absence of love” from her mother and often directed her violent and murderous literary fantasies towards her mother.
Why, one might ask, would the extremely uninhibited Plath not write a poem called “Mommy” if it was in some deeper way about her mother? We can’t know, of course, but she may have encrypted her feelings about her mother into a poem about her father because it was easier to face them in that form, because even the violently free Plath of the late poems was not violently free enough to put her feelings toward her mother in a more direct form for the world to see. Given how long and deeply she struggled with those feelings, it is not impossible that even at her wildest, most liberated, she was not able to dispense with the comfort of metaphors and codes.
NPR’s Craig Morgan Teicher takes a closer look at a younger, less well known Plath, “an obviously talented writer who is having trouble finding a subject commensurate with her knife-sharp powers of description and emotional clarity.” Take a poem she wrote in 1957 about a big pig, for example:
Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black compost,
Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood …
Already Plath can render anything she looks at with stultifying intensity, and she’s gaining the control of where to break her lines — her poet’s timing — that will make the Ariel poems so searing and sinister. But ultimately, this poem adds up to little more than a prolonged exclamation of, “Wow! That’s a really big pig!” The stakes are out of sync: The poem just isn’t as important as it sounds.
In 1959, however, the Plath fans know and love finally emerges in “The Eye-Mote.” In the poem, the narrator is pleasantly riding a horse through the countryside, when suddenly a splinter flies into her eye. Her vision distorted, the world becomes a twisted and unknown place.
A melding of shapes in a hot rain:
Horses warped on the altering green,
Outlandish as double-humped camels or unicorns,
Grazing at the margins of a bad monochrome …
Plath’s extraordinary verbal inventiveness has begun to find a subject equal to it: the shape-shifting the mind exerts on the world, the ways the heart can inflect, even infect, what happens.
As tragic and dark as her end would be, it’s nonetheless thrilling to watch this great artist becoming herself.
For those wishing to engage in a more prolonged anniversary meditation of the poet, two new biographies, “American Isis” and “Mad Girl’s Love Song” attempt to tease out new details and insights into Plath’s life. The former lays claim that ““Sylvia Plath is the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” And as the New York Times says, the latter “makes a convincing case that we can learn more about Plath and the pressures that shaped her by paying attention to her “life before Ted” — the high school and college years.”
The Times concludes:
[Plath's] continuing appeal as a biographical subject suggests that the political and psychological questions her life and work raise are ones we still feel compelled to ask.
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February 1, 2013 3:21 pm
Grand Central Terminal, the country’s most recognizable transportation hub, celebrates its 100th birthday today.
A legacy of the Vanderbilt family (whose adopted symbol, the acorn, sits atop the terminal’s trademark clock), Grand Central is more than just ticket booths, tracks and platforms, of which there are 44, making it the largest train station in the world based on platform number.
It’s a city within a city, housing 50 shops, 20 eateries, five restaurants, newsstands, a fresh food market and multiple passageways to maneuver around it all. Its train and subway systems serve nearly 200,000 commuters daily. In total, every day more than 700,000 people pass through the terminal, a Beaux-Arts style transportation hub that took ten years and $80 million to complete.
A quintessential New York spot, the 48-acre centenarian brings in approximately 21.6 million visitors each year. They come to see the cavernous main concourse and gaze up at the arched painted ceiling, to which as many as 50 painters contributed. The mural depicts constellations of the Mediterranean sky, but in reverse—an error that transportation officials explained away as an astronomical representation from God’s perspective.
Visitors also come to survey the 50-foot statues on Grand Central’s south face depicting Mercury, Hercules and Minerva, the gods of, respectively, travelers, strength and commerce. And they come to see for themselves the famous four-faced, 13-foot-wide Tiffany glass and opal clocks.
Grand Central Terminal has a storied past, with several well-kept secrets that have since been exposed. A “whispering gallery” in the dining concourse near the Oyster Bar, a restaurant as old as the terminal itself, allows a quiet voice to travel from one end to the other, thanks to acoustics created by low ceramic arches. Past a door inside the information booth is a hidden spiral staircase, leading down to another information kiosk.
During World War II, German military intelligence learned of a once-secret basement known as M42, which contains converters used to supply electric currents to trains. Spies were sent to sabotage it, but the FBI arrested them before they could strike.
A train platform with a concealed entrance, number 61, was once used to transport President Franklin D. Roosevelt directly into the nearby Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
In 1957, a NASA rocket was displayed inside the terminal, a move meant to encourage support for the country’s space program as it raced against the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. A six-inch hole was carved into the ceiling to help support the missile, and it remains amidst the mural’s 2,500 stars.
In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists planted a bomb in one of the terminal’s lockers, and the subsequent attempt to disarm the device killed a bomb squad specialist and injured 30 others.
The terminal’s interior has also been the backdrop to several Hollywood classics. In 1933, Bing Crosby received a star-studded sendoff at Track 27 in “Going Hollywood.” Twenty years later, Fred Astaire hopped off a train and danced up track 34 in a Technicolor musical number in “The Band Wagon.” The following year, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck kissed inside the terminal before making their getaway in “Spellbound.” The 1959 action classic “North by Northwest” opens with a montage of New Yorkers bustling through the terminal, and Cary Grant later makes a nighttime escape through the main concourse.
Once dedicated to long-distance travel, Grand Central Terminal is now home to the Metro-North Railroad, the largest commuter railroad service in the United States. Three train hubs have stood at 42nd and Park Avenue since the 19th century. In 1871, Grand Central Depot consolidated several New York railroads into one station until it was partially demolished three decades later. What remained, dubbed Grand Central Station, doubled in height and received a new façade. Several years later, in 1913, a decade-long project transformed the hub into the iconic terminal anchoring midtown Manhattan today.
But the terminal’s fate hasn’t always been so secure. In the 1950s, multiple real estate developers proposed replacing it with towers, some 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building. By the late 1960s, the growing popularity of government-subsidized interstate highways and air travel had sapped the customer pool of railroads across the country. Grand Central wasn’t immune. Over time, the ceiling became obscured by tar and tobacco smoke residue, and commercial billboards blocked out natural light from streaming in.
By 1968, New York Central Railroad, which operated the terminal, was facing bankruptcy, and it merged with Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central. The new company unveiled another tower proposal that year, but the plans drew significant opposition, most notably from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The terminal became a historic landmark in 1978, following a Supreme Court decision to protect the transportation hub, the first time the court had ruled on a matter of historic preservation.
In the 1990s, the terminal saw a massive, two-year, $196 million renewal project under Metro-North. The ceiling of the Main Concourse was restored, revealing the painted skyscape, the billboard were removed to let light in and the original baggage room was replaced with a mirror image of the west staircase, a feature that had been included in original blueprints but hadn’t come to fruition.
But Grand Central Terminal won’t remain unchanged for long. A two-level, eight-track tunnel is being excavated under Park Avenue to bring in Long Island Rail Road trains, and by 2019, thousands more will be coming and going, arriving and departing, through this historic landmark.
Many thanks to Sam Roberts’ indispensable, comprehensive history “Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America.”
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