On an evening cruise in 1979 aboard the 125-foot steamship Virginia V off Seattle in Puget Sound, a 32-year-old engine fireman heard the roar of steam ripping out of the engine, a noise that sends chills down the backs of steamship engineers. Keith Sternberg raced to shut off the boiler before the water level dropped further. A few minutes longer and the boiler’s pipes and tubes could have been irretrievably scorched, causing them to rupture or even explode.
Nineteen-year-old Harvey Henningsen’s heart sank in 1964 when his father announced his intention to scrap the engines of the Sturgeon’s Lumber Mill, a steam-powered operation in Sebastopol, California, 55 miles northwest of San Francisco. Harvey had grown up there, running errands for the millworkers as a boy; as a young man he had been thrilled by the boilermen’s stories as they stroked the massive furnaces powering the pulse of the single-piston, 1850 Atlas 30-horsepower steam engine, which shuddered so violently that it shook the mill floor above.
Bette Nesmith Graham didn’t set out to earn millions: she just needed a way to correct her frequent typing mistakes as a secretary at the Texas Bank & Trust in Dallas in the early 1950s. In the process this single mother invented and patented Liquid Paper, a product that transformed the working lives of millions of typists overnight. Her invention’s effectiveness lies in its simplicity. “Like a safety pin or a rubber band,” she said, “we wonder how we ever got along before without it.”
In early 2006 the 66-year-old retired nuclear engineer George Niederauer pulled his Ford Explorer into David Passard’s driveway in Van Nuys, California, after driving 800 miles from his home in Durango, Colorado. The house, garage, yard, and outbuildings were crammed with antique locomotive generators, lights, bulbs, and books stockpiled over four decades. Niederauer felt his heart race.
Tom Marshall Jr. will never forget the first time he "steamed up," or started, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company's rare 1915 five-seat Mountain Wagon. The year was 1946, Marshall a 22-year-old recently discharged as a lieutenant from the Army Air Forces. His father, a collector of Stanley Steamer vehicles, had roped him into a 300-mile road trip from Yorklyn, Delaware, to Cochituate, Massachusetts, to pick up the wagon that the Litchfield Stage Company had used to haul firewood.
AFTER MINNEAPOLIS’S I-35W steel truss bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River at 6:05 p.m. on Au-gust 1, 2007, the first job was survivor rescue, followed by recovering bodies and clearing of vehicles and wreckage. Well before that was finished, planning for a 1,223-foot-long replacement structure was under way. The state tallied a daily tab of $400,000 in delay and lost business, given that 140,000 vehicles had been using its eight lanes each weekday.
In 1763 Scottish mathematical instrumentation expert James Watt begged his friends at Glasgow College’s Natural Philosophy Department to recall their novel mechanical gadget—a Newcomen steam engine—from a London repair establishment. The awkward, rickety device soon arrived at his shop. It had a rectangular, open wood frame, a boiler the size of a teakettle, and a single piston with a six-inch stroke.
It took Butch Biesecker nine years to restore his 1924 Keck-Gonnerman steam traction engine with new valves, water flues, gearing, and a repaired firebox. Now the newly appointed 62-year-old president of the Rough and Tumble Engineers Historical Association in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, must perform regular, expensive, and time- consuming maintenance on the 12-ton machine. But that’s pan of the charm, he says: “Your best friends are a wrench and a towel. But I enjoy tinkering with engines. They’re hot, dirty, and fun.”
Back in 1951, television was still fairly new and mysterious. Whether they could afford a set at home or just settled for watching one in a radio shop window or other public place, most people were perfectly content to do nothing more than stare passively at the small, flickering, black-and-white screen, later inspiring some wags to dub television the "boob tube." But it wasn't enough for Ralph Baer, a creative young engineer working for the New York electronics company Loral.
THE PLACE DIDN'T LOOK like a cutting-edge research laboratory. The work benches in the little room at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, were cluttered with oscilloscopes and other gear for testing electronics, circuit boards, computer workstations, drills, files, miscellaneous bits of wire, and other gear reminiscent of a hobbyist's well-equipped workshop.
Well before his inauguration, with a recession gripping the country, President-elect Barack Obama proposed plans for a massive federal stimulus package centered on a public works program. “We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s,” he said.
A typical flight instructor in 1917 would point to the instruments in a cockpit and tell his students to “pay no attention to them.” In aviation’s early days, pilots flew by the “seat of their pants.” They trusted their eyes and gut feelings, even though doing so sometimes killed them, especially when vertigo set in at night or during bad weather. Such loss of equilibrium was considered part of the business, a rite of passage that fliers just had to handle.
Glenn Curtiss made his name as an aviator, but he started out his career as a record-setting motorcyclist, reaching the mind-boggling and joint-rattling speed of 136 miles per hour in 1907. Later that year he joined Alexander Graham Bell and three other members of the Aerial Experiment Association to help create ailerons, hinged wing flaps that enable airplanes to bank and turn. Curtiss went on to make America’s first exhibition flight, win the first international air-speed prize at Reims, France, in 1909, and design the first practical seaplane.
While numerous NASA technologies have found applications outside the aerospace industry, many products long associated with NASA actually came to the space agency fully developed from the consumer and commercial worlds. Test your NASA spinoff literacy below.
It all started nine decades ago, when a college kid began sketching on a scrap of stationery with a pencil and pen. Although the lines are clumsy and the hand that drew them untrained, the image is immediately recognizable as the device found in every American shoe store.
“Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” radioed astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. impatiently from atop his Redstone rocket at Launch Complex 5, Cape Canaveral, Florida. The 37-year-old Navy test pilot from Derry, New Hampshire, had endured weeks of launch delays, and now a series of weather and mechanical problems that morning of May 5, 1961.
I remember the dark, crisp air of that early October morning in 1957 as I sleepily followed my father up a hill near our house. The sky was a ceiling of bright stars and the dewy grass soaked my pajama legs.
What do a NASA spacecraft that studied the sun and a fluid that protects vinyl records have in common?
More than you might think.
On January 17, 1994, Los Angeles became transfixed by the saga of Salvador Peña, a hitherto unknown immigrant father of five. Early that morning, Peña had been steering a motorized street sweeper around the first floor of a three-story parking garage at the Northridge Fashion Center mall when ground waves from a 6.7-magnitude earthquake broke the building apart, leaving him critically injured and in excruciating pain beneath two layers of concrete slabs and beams, pinned by his crumpled vehicle near a pool of gasoline.
AT ABOUT 10:30 ON AN otherwise uneventful morning, August 15, 1940, radar operators sitting in the cramped wooden huts studded every 20 miles along the southern and eastern coasts of England were startled to see their electronic equipment suddenly go haywire. Above each but loomed a skeletal pair of 300-foot steel towers with several transmitting antennae strung between them, accompanied by a second set, of wood measuring about 200 feet, that bore a series of crossed receiving antennae.