A Disaster’s Toll
The collapse of the Quebec Bridge on August 29, 1907 (“A Disaster in the Making,” Spring 1986 issue) entailed considerably more than the ruination of Theodore Cooper’s career, steelworker Hall’s two fingers, and the lives of seventy-five men. Of those seventy-five men, no fewer than thirty-five were Mohawk Indians from the Caughnawaga Reserve in Quebec. Their deaths had a devastating effect on this small Indian community, altering drastically its demographic profile, its economic base, and its social fabric. Mohawk steelworkers would never again work in such large crews, opting instead to work in small groups on several jobs. Today, Mohawk high-steelworkers remain among the highest regarded and most skilled in their field.
William A. Stama
A Better Barrel
In “Working with Working Models” (Fall 1985), Benjamin Lawless showed a patent model for a Dahlgren-like gun designed by John Ericsson and described the rings around the barrel as providing cooling. But overheating from rapid fire was a small problem in 1864 compared with the tendency of large iron cannon to burst. A host of inventors on either side of the Atlantic labored furiously to develop composite cannon with greater strength and endurance, and Dahlgren, for one, patented circular plates stacked and shrunken into place for added reinforcement. I suspect that the fins on Ericsson’s gun were likewise intended not for cooling but for increased strength.
Benjamin Lawless replies: Mr. Olmstead is right, and I was wrong. The patent states that the purpose of the wroughtiron bands was “to obtain the necessary strength with the least weight of metal.”
Successes and Failures
Your magazine is most interesting and provocative for someone who has spent his career as a chemical engineer in the research and development of aerospace technology. And special thanks to Robert Kargon for his article “Inventing Caltech” (Spring 1986). His historical perspective brings into view much of what has influenced me since I joined Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1956.
The article about the Quebec Bridge in the same issue suggests that we can often learn much more from our failures than from our successes. Yet we usually try not to permit any failures to occur. Might this be one reason for the lack of much contribution by engineers and scientists to drag-racer design, as pointed out in Robert Post’s “In Praise of Top Fuelers”?
Warren L. Dowler
Song of the Bell
In his article on the Burndy Library (Fall 1985), I. Bernard Cohen mentions that in the eighteenth century church bells were commonly rung in a vain attempt to ward off lightning strokes, and that they often bore the words fulgura frango. In fact, the full citation reads: Vivos voco,/ Mortuos plango,/ Fulgura frango (The living I call,/ The dead I mourn,/ Lightning I break).
Schiller used this as the motto for his “Das Lied von der Glocke” (“The Song of the Bell”), one of the most famous poems in the German language. Every high school student in Germany, at least some time ago, had to know it by heart. It seems Schiller copied it from the large bell in the cathedral of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland. The inscription indicated the three principle occasions at which the bell was rung: to greet a newborn (at baptism), to bid farewell to one who had died (at burial), and to warn of—and possibly ward off—lightning.
Walter H. Oettinger, P.E.
The Price of Hype
In reading about the exaggerated promotional ploys used by early inventorbarons (“How Did the Heroic Inventors Do It?” by Thomas P. Hughes, Fall 1985), I wonder if today’s jadedness is not in some way a reaction to subsequent barrages of techno-hype.
Students and faculty on most engineering-college campuses today, enamored with their visions of “high tech,” are shunning the industry whose existence is the very foundation of all future pursuits—electricity. Their attitude is just the opposite of that conveyed by the statement “America’s electric-power network … is perhaps our most complex technology” (in “Learning from the Big Blackouts,” in the same issue).
Dug under Pressure
In “Notes from the Field” (Spring 1986), you write, “New York City’s Holland Tunnel, completed in 1927, was the first of many built using compressed air.” I believe there were accounts of sandhogs being blown up to the surface of the East River during the construction of the IRT and BMT tunnels well before the twenties.
J. W. Duffield
mma Cobb replies: Correct. The Holland Tunnel was the first automobile tunnel so built.