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Tommy’s Birthday Party

Summer 1993 | Volume 9 |  Issue 1

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. : On a February weekend when the NBA’s All-Stars were in Utah for their annual contest, an equally stellar (though somewhat less wealthy) group assembled at the University of Virginia for a symposium on trends in technology. There were no acrobatic jams, but the scholars did occasionally slamdunk one another’s theories; and while they may not exactly have lit up any scoreboards, many impressive points were tallied.

The occasion was the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson, who did much to promote technology in the early days of the Republic. When he founded the University of Virginia, Jefferson included “technical philosophy” in the curriculum—one of the first collegiate engineering programs. As Secretary of State he established the American patent system, and he examined the first applications and models himself, as one of the original patent officers. Jefferson included many modest technological advances in his design for Monticello, even as he railed against the advent of the Industrial Revolution and put forth a pastoral vision of society. The symposium’s organizers hoped that Jefferson’s writings and experiences would help us understand some of the transformations going on in technology today.

The first day was devoted to an examination of Jefferson’s legacy and time. Leo Marx of MIT pointed out that in his early writings Jefferson envisioned a republic of citizen farmers, not for reasons of economic efficiency but because he thought it would make a better society. Later on he reconciled himself with some aspects of industrialization. Who could have foreseen, Jefferson asked in 1816, that we would become unable to rely on Britain for our manufactures? Edwin T. Layton of the University of Minnesota told how Jefferson encouraged James Rumsey’s work on steamboats and turbines (see “‘The Most Original,’” Invention & Technology , Spring 1987), which led to awareness of the difference between scientific and technological knowledge. Merritt Roe Smith of MIT detailed Jefferson’s role in promoting the idea of interchangeable parts, thus helping set in motion events that would lead all the way to modern mass production.

The second day dealt with changes occurring today in engineering education and practice. John M. Prausnitz of the University of California at Berkeley led off with a paper called “Against Babelism: Hermeneutics, Diversity, and the Decline of Reductionism.” As the title suggests, it was an examination of the fragmentation and overspecialization that prevail today in engineering, with a look at trends that may signal a return to cooperation and integration. Other speakers discussed the bewildering pace of advances in medical technology and how the enormous increase in government funding has changed technological research since World War II. Don Voelte of Mobil Oil added a Stockdalean touch by noting that he was the only nonacademic speaker and asking, “What am I doing here?” He went on to describe Mobil’s continuing efforts to restructure its engineering operations.

After the papers were finished, Professor Thomas P. Hughes of the University of Pennsylvania, a founding father of the history of technology (and a University of Virginia graduate), gamely tried to connect the two days’ proceedings. Just as Jefferson’s era saw a change from agrarianism to industrialism, Hughes said, today the industrial world faces a change from hierarchical management to fluidity and decentralization—postmodern engineering, as he called it. Ford’s River Rouge plant, which took in raw materials at one end and spit out cars at the other, was a paradigm of the old way, which had begun to take form in Jefferson’s day. The development in the 1960s of the Defense Department’s DARPANET , a computer network that allows researchers across the country to communicate and collaborate with no centralized direction or guidance, is a paradigm of the new.

When it was all over, a walk through Jefferson’s superb classical campus made manifest his continuing presence. The spirit of the founder resides in the grounds of the University of Virginia as it does at few other colleges. Behind the stately colonnades and ivied bricks, engineering researchers were working with gene splicing and supercomputers. What would Jefferson’s reaction be to such developments? It’s impossible to say, of course, but surely he would have smiled to learn that his beloved university had hosted a gathering of scholars dedicated to evaluating where technology was heading—and that 250 years after his birth, his views on industry and society remain pertinent.

Jefferson’s writings are examined for what they can tell us about today’s technological environment.

STILL SHAKING : The Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse is technology’s version of the JFK assassination. There’s the grainy blackand-white film endlessly scrutinized frame by frame; the reams of expert analysis next to impossible for a layperson to evaluate; and, of course, the buffs who are convinced that only they know the real story. No one has yet linked Leon Moisseiff, the bridge’s designer, to the CIA, but it’s only a matter of time. Amid all the controversy, one thing is certain: Mention the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in print and you’ll get a lot of letters. The response to the “Notes From the Field” column in our Winter 1993 issue is a case in point.

Many theories and explanations were offered. A distinguished scholar of structural engineering wrote that there is “no mystery” behind the collapse; “secondary vortices,” unknown at the time of the bridge’s construction, were to blame. R. G. Elmendorf of Bairdford, Pennsylvania, suggested—after looking at the photographs accompanying Eugene S. Ferguson’s article (“How Engineers Lose Touch”)—that far from acting like springs, perhaps the cable stays never bent at all, and the motion of the cables themselves was to blame.

Robert W. Earl of Huntington Beach, California, wrote that the galloping “looks suspiciously similar to the springlike harmonics of a flat and relatively flexible deck structure acting as a torsion bar fixed at both ends plus those of a violin string.” It’s hard to argue with that. Mr. Earl also explained how a shifting, swirling wind could provide the constant driving force needed to cause harmonic motion. Each gust of wind, he said, contains a spectrum of wind velocities, like the spectrum of frequencies found in white light. Presumably the bridge responded to components of the proper velocity, while the rest blew harmlessly by.

Joseph Walton of Dubuque, Iowa, took issue with our assertion that “springs work in both directions” and sent a tension spring, which stretches but does not compress, to demonstrate. And E. C. Gilbert of Tulsa, Oklahoma, offered the simplest answer to the question of “why the bridge fell down.” Gilbert wrote, “The answer is very simple—gravity. Did anyone ever hear of a bridge falling up?” The logic is unassailable.

The most impressive response to our bridge-a-rama came from Research Consulting Associates of Lexington, Massachusetts, which sells devices to keep power lines from galloping in the wind. A. S. Richardson, the firm’s president, thought that our bridge pictures looked a lot like what those devices are designed to prevent, and he sent a video labeled “Galloping—March 12th, 1991 (RT 13:00)” to demonstrate. As advertised, it showed thirteen minutes of transmission lines galloping.

All of which goes to demonstrate how the collapse retains its importance after more than half a century. There is something in it for just about everyone: structural engineers, fluid dynamicists, mathematicians, historians, even journalists. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge stayed up for less than a year, but in the classroom, in computer simulations, and, it’s hoped, in the mind of every practicing engineer, it is lasting much, much longer.

CLEVELAND, OHIO : The famous Hulett unloaders, long-time favorites of heavy-industry buffs (see “They’re Still There,” Fall 1987), have scooped their last shovelfuls ofore on the Lake Erie waterfront. On December 15 the MV LeMoyne yielded its cargo of taconite pellets from Labrador, and the behemoths were shut down for the final time. For those who loved the Huletts, it was like seeing a favorite dog put to sleep. “It’s hard to imagine them not being a part of the lakes scene,” says Eric Hirsimaki, who has written many books and articles on local industrial topics. “They had a distinctive sound and a very distinctive motion.”

Most Clevelanders, however wistful the closing makes them, agree that it was inevitable. Vessels that used the high-maintenance, power-gulping, labor-intensive Huletts are rapidly being retired or converted to self-unloaders. In recent years the Huletts were reduced to servicing a dwindling fleet of Canadian vessels and part-time ore boats moonlighting between shipments of grain. Eventually there was too little traffic to justify keeping them in operation.

Plans call for the Huletts to be scrapped as part of a waterfront improvement scheme, though enthusiasts are hoping to preserve them. Conrail, which owns the unloaders and the dock they sit on, has agreed to leave them alone until late spring. Even if the Cleveland Huletts perish, there are four others in storage in nearby Conneaut as well as the last two working Huletts anywhere, which unload coal in the Chicago area. But the inspiring spectacle of a ninety-foot hunk of steel grabbing seventeen tons of ore in a single bite will no longer be seen on the shores of Lake Erie. Many people today are optimistic about development and modernization in Cleveland. But for those to whom the Huletts symbolized a city just as much as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gateway Arch, or the Empire State Building, the optimism is tinged with a hint of sadness.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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