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Spring 1998 | Volume 13 |  Issue 4

Winter Strikes Back

I READ “HOW THE RAILROADS DEFEATED Winter” (by Patrick Allitt, Winter 1998) with much interest but was surprised that the author did not mention the City of San Francisco , which was snowbound at Donner Pass from January 13 to 16, 1952. I was on that train as a young Navy officer headed for San Francisco during the Korean conflict. There were 196 passengers and a crew of 30 aboard while a huge blizzard piled snow higher and higher for about two days of subfreezing temperatures after we stalled. After a time most of the train was covered with snow.

The train, which was one of the finest, became a black cave. Under each car was an individual engine-driven electric generator. When the snow covered the train, the carbon monoxide exhaust filtered into the cars and 20 people were temporarily overcome. The generators were shut down, and so, with no electricity, the train was completely dark.

We lived in this worsening condition for more than two days, until the Southern Pacific Railroad marshaled about a thousand men with rotary plows, army weasels (snow vehicles), and skis to get us out. Food supplies were low, and the sanitary facilities became inoperative. With no heat the interior grew colder. As most of the passengers were headed to a warm climate, many did not have winter clothing. I was fortunate in that I had all my gear, so I had a warm coat.

Finally the railroad gave up on getting the train out of the drifts, and the California Highway Department plowed out a road adjacent to the track and organized a shuttle of a truck and about six autos. During the third day, which was sunny, cold, and clear, we finally walked off the train to the autos. We were taken to Emigrant Gap, California, where we boarded another train and proceeded to San Francisco. Amazingly, no one perished. We were told this was the first time a passenger train had been abandoned this way.

Although your article does not refer to any situations after the early 1900s, the power of Mother Nature could still subdue the railroads in 1952.

Marshall Damerell
Lusby, Md.

Winter Strikes Back

I WORKED ON THE UNION PACIFIC RAIL road from 1968 through 1981 as a switchman/brakeman in Los Angeles. Although I didn’t endure the rough winters the article describes, I did see hoboes who had frozen to death coming from the East on a train that traveled over Devour Pass in winter. I saw the end of an era, too—the dropping of the word Railroad from the corporate name, the end of passenger service, the removal of catwalks from boxcars, the first use of walkie-talkies, the articulation of railcars, the start of containerized freight, and the end of the caboose. I also lost six co-workers to rail accidents in those 13 years and came close to joining them about five times that I know of. In 1969 the Union Pacific introduced the 6900-series engine to commemorate the East-West meeting in 1869, and it was a sight to see, some 60 feet long with 7,000 horsepower from two engines, and four sets of trucks. As it turned out, it wanted to go straight most of the time and didn’t like to go around curves, so it was finally put out of service.

Art Rex
Venice, Calif.

The Langmuir Fan Club

“THE MAN WHO FOUND THE UNIVERSE in a Light Bulb” (by T. A. Heppenheimer, Winter 1998) captured Irving Langmuir’s creative essence: He was a broad, pioneering experimentalist and theorist who opened connections across various scientific and industrial fields and who had unique skill in making the simple but critical experiment.

As someone lucky enough to have interacted with Langmuir between 1948 and 1953—he was a significant mentor for me—I became familiar with several other of his dimensions. One was his infectious enthusiasm. When he visited Caltech or participated in large, formal conferences or small research projects, he invariably left a trail of people motivated to work harder and more optimistically. Another was humbleness and openness, a willingness to learn from people in all walks of life, not just scientists. Then there was his ability to start with fundamentals, an instinct that enabled him to ferret out the underlying issue. This represents real understanding, not just learning from the literature. Once, as he was starting to explore the difficult statistical evaluation that might illuminate large-scale weather-modification problems, I encountered him in his G.E. office with an elementary textbook on statistics and a number of coins he was flipping to develop a feel for the subject.

Langmuir took an interest in everything, including the processes of science in sorting out fact from fiction. I have a transcript of an informal lecture he once gave on “Pathological Science”- a sympathetic but incisive examination of how easy it is for scientists to fool themselves and for the public to be misled by incautious media.

Paul B. MacCready
Chairman, AeroVironment Inc.
Monrovia, Calif.

The Langmuir Fan Club

T. A. HEPPENHEIMER’S SPLENDE ARTICLE captures many of the accomplishments of an extraordinary man. Langmuir was one of my idols during my graduate-student days at Chicago, almost 60 years ago. Rereading one of his papers from the 1920s still furnishes an aesthetic pleasure for me because of his lucidity.

Heppenheimer mentions that during Langmuir’s brief stay at Stevens Institute of Technology, from 1906 to 1909, he published only one paper. That paper is astonishing, however, predating important results that appeared in the chemical engineering literature many decades later without attribution to Langmuir. His 1908 article modeled chemical-reaction rates when reactive gases are passed through a heated reactor. His mathematical approach was far in advance of anything in the chemical engineering literature of the time. In fact, the first five volumes of the Transactions of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which was founded that same year, 1908, contain no papers that can be described as mathematical modeling.

Langmuir’s catholic curiosity about science is also embodied in the Langmuir isotherm, which describes the coverage of a catalyst surface by gas molecules. Variations of this isotherm are still widely used today for describing and predicting the rates of catalytic reactions, and thus it remains very important for understanding processes in refinery and chemical operations.

Sol W. Weller
C. C. Furnas Professor Emeritus
State University of New York
Buffalo, N.Y.

The Langmuir Fan Club

HEPPENHEIMER WRITES AN EXCELLENT article on Langmuir, but he ends it with: “By ranging far beyond the narrowly practical concerns of Edison, he demonstrated… .” Let me remind you that Langmuir was supported—comfortably, I assume- by General Electric. Edison’s “narrowly practical concerns” not only supported himself, Mrs. Edison, his family, and his entire laboratory staff but led, with the work of other practical men, to the formation of General Electric itself. Heppenheimer could have made his point just as well without the gentle putdown of Edison. I am grateful, though, that Invention & Technology does not share the usual simple neglect of Edison.

Ray Phillips
Studio City, Calif.

Double Trouble

I READ “THE OLDEST CUTTING EDGE” (by Robert Kimber, Winter 1998) with considerable interest, for while I have never earned a living with an ax, I did acquire some proficiency with one when cutting poplars and willows in Illinois as a young man. Many years later, as a member of the Seattle Mountaineers, I volunteered to be one of a party clearing wind-downed timber from a ski slope. That proved educational because the group included a young logging-company employee who had been trained in safe-logging practices. He spent much of the day cautioning us about the hazards of our activity. One of his most vehement criticisms was of our leaving a doublebitted ax sticking in a log or stump, as is commonly done with a singlebitted ax. He regarded this situation as a potential man-killer and seemed to think axes with two blades were simply too specialized and dangerous to be used by amateurs.

Since then I have learned what the article didn’t mention, that the double-bitted ax is truly a specialized tool, having its edges sharpened to two different tapers, one for making a cut and the other for popping the chip. There is no reason for me or any other amateur axman to own a double-bitted ax.

Roy W. Wessel
Seattle, Wash.

Double Trouble

I WONDER HOW MANY READERS WERE reminded of the tale of the old-timer who bragged that the ax he used had been passed down from his great-greatgreat-grandfather. Of course the bit had had to be replaced a couple of times, and the handle had been broken a time or two, and the wedge had had to be replaced, but except for those minor items it was the same ax. And they don’t make axes like that anymore, son.

Louis H. Trigg
Pearl City, Hawaii

The Name Game

THE CONFUSION ABOUT WHETHER THE USS Constellation now in Baltimore was built in 1797 or 1854 (“Letters,” Winter 1998) is common for ships built in the 1850s and was caused deliberately by the Navy. At the time, Congress appropriated money for ship repair grudgingly and only when the ships were literally falling apart; it refused to provide money for new construction, even when building a new ship would have been less expensive than repairing an old one. The Navy responded by building new ships out of their repair appropriation, naming them after old ships, and incorporating enough of the old so that they could claim that the resulting vessels were old ships rebuilt. This claim was not at all frivolous at the time; it was the only way the Navy could meet its obligation to defend the country and protect American shipping.

A. Franklin Brayman III
Trussville, Ala.

Superheated Steam

THE PICTURE OF THE SKINNER UNA flow power plant aboard SS Badger (“They’re Still There,” Winter 1998) is fascinating. Skinner Unaflow reciprocating steam engines powered a number of World War II escort carriers. The power of normal reciprocating steam engines was limited by the fact that they could not use superheated steam. Their pistons could not be lubricated by oil, which would be needed in a superheated system but which would contaminate the steam condensate; they depended on liquid steam condensate, starting in the high-pressure cylinder, for lubrication. Skinner Unaflows could use superheated steam; in naval vessels they lubricated the piston with oil and then passed the contaminated condensate through terry-cloth scrubbers, large cylinders with long strips of terry that caught most of the oil before the condensate was returned to the boilers.

Donald R. Morris
Houston, Tex.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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