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117378.  Fri Nov 17, 2006 4:16 am Reply with quote

Big topic, maybe a theme for a whole show. I keep noticing little snippets, and I need somewhere to store them.

117381.  Fri Nov 17, 2006 4:19 am Reply with quote


What use is a whale on a spaceship?

Whale oil is used as a lubricant on spaceships because it can be used at very low temperatures:

Sperm oil not only works as the best quality lubricant, but also does not freeze down to minus thirty degrees. Both the USA and the Soviets used it for missiles and space ships, and huge amounts of oil were in stock in preparation for possible future war in Siberia.

117383.  Fri Nov 17, 2006 4:22 am Reply with quote


Another birthday boy in 2006 was the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel - 200 years old on April 9th. What happens on April 9th every year to commemorate the great man?

a) the rising sun shines straight through the Box Hill railway tunnel
b) ten members of the Institution of Civil Engineers bungee jump off the Clifton Suspension Bridge
c) a birthday greeting message is sent down the original Trans-Atlantic cable, first laid in 1858 by Brunel's ship the Great Eastern.

Answer: a)

The Box Tunnel between Bath and Chippenham is nearly two miles long and opened in 1841, the longest railway tunnel in the world at the time. It is not certain that Brunel deliberately designed it so that the Sun would shine through it on his birthday, but it has been pretty well established that it does in fact do so. In theory, anyway; in practice, no-one has been foolhardy enough to stand on this high-speed railway line in the middle of the rush hour to check the story.

Saga Magazine QI Christmas quiz 2006 (not that that's authoritative, as I wrote it myself)

148264.  Sat Feb 17, 2007 7:52 am Reply with quote

In the early days of wireless:

“Receiver and loudspeaker usually produced more distortion than crystal set and headphones did, while sensitivity and selectivity almost always relied on using a 'reaction' control to feed back part of a valve's output to its input. Increasing the amount fed back improved performance, inevitably tempting the user to cross the threshold at which the valve's amplification became literally infinite, thereby converting the valve from an amplifier to an oscillator and the set from a receiver to a transmitter. This produced howling noises in other receivers tuned to the same station, possibly for a mile or more around. Oscillation became sufficient of a nuisance to cause the BBC's ebullient Chief Engineer, P P Eckersley, to come on the air: Is this fair? Is this British? Don't oscillate. Please don't oscillate. Don't do it.”

Or, as Quinion has it: “Please don’t oscillate. It’s not British!”

Michael Quinion: “Gallimaufry” (OUP, 2006)

152292.  Wed Feb 28, 2007 8:56 am Reply with quote

“It’s certainly not unusual for buildings to be deemed a danger to public safety. Dodgy slates, subsiding walls or loose panes of glass often result in blocked pavements, stripy warning tape and cheek sucking workmen looking skywards. In the history of remedial construction however there must be precious few examples of an erection being declared unsafe due to the threat of falling penises. Yet in 1930’s London, number 429 Strand, a building dogged by controversy ever since its completion, was irrevocably altered, some would say vandalised, in the name of health and safety.”

That’s from a very funny and well-filled website, worth a trip if you haven’t seen it:

Link to Eccentricity.

154675.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 4:14 pm Reply with quote

A couple of major engineering flops of recent times:

1. Port Tunnel in Dublin that was not big enough to let large trucks through and was actually dug out in the wrong place. They only realised this on completion and are now building a new one.
2. Los Angeles Underground. It cost 5,5 billion dollars and was completed in the late 1990s. A beautiful Metro it is: clean, air-conditioned, and the trains run frequently. There's only one problem: practically no one uses it: the links it offers are inconvenient, and Californians simply distrust trains. They would rather spend hours in traffic jams than travel according to "somebody else's" schedule! LA's chief architect told me the story and showed me the underground several years ago. He also said that the state authorities were desperate to cover up such a massive failure, and that was why very little info about it was available.

154757.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 9:06 pm Reply with quote

Another major engineering flop - Boston's Big Dig, where using superglue to hold up heavy cement ceiling panels turned out to be an unwise choice.

155343.  Fri Mar 09, 2007 11:07 am Reply with quote

Wired has a good list:

Should probably add Chernobyl, Bhopal and The Quebec Bridge to those, for extra, um, laughs.

Stick to 'funny' disasters, then, maybe?

Sewer sinkholes seem reasonably common:

San Francisco Seacliff Mansion
Guatamala City

156166.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:35 am Reply with quote

Railways, obviously.

Who built the first railway tracks in Britain?

Because steam engines before the 1850s were not powerful enough to draw a train up any substantial gradient (or even round any great bend), all the earliest railways had to be laid on track beds which were virtually level and straight from end to end. The work do this - filling valleys, bridging rivers, cutting banks, strengthening bogs, boring tunnels - was entirely manual: thousands and thousands of navvies with picks and shovels. Horses were used to cart the spoil away and work winches above the cuttings, but otherwise it was all human muscle - no dynamite, and no mechanical drills or diggers.

An engineer named Leland who worked on the 120-mile London-Birmingham line calculated that the effort expended over five years was the equivalent of building the Great Pyramid 1.5 times (for this one line, excluding bridges, viaducts, and the laying of the track itself). Modern trains to Birmingham and Bristol still run on the perfectly flat beds built by Stephenson and Brunel respectively.

Then, as now, people did what I have just done: lionized the headline names and ignored the navvies - but their capacity for work seems barely credible today. Each man was expected to be able to lift nearly twenty tons of earth per day onto a wagon, using a shovel. It was acknowledged that the toughest agricultural workers were completely incapable of keeping up with seasoned navvies; it took a year to turn a man into a navvy, a human machine fuelled by meat and beer, the most obdurate specimen of human brawn the world has ever seen, and one of the most universally despised by the rest of society.

This, at least, changed in 1854, when the railway contractor Peto volunteered to rescue the British and French army from the Crimean winter. He shipped out track-laying equipment and a private army of navvies, who set to work as soon as they landed at Balaclava. While 30,000 soldiers sat in trenches around Sevastopol the navvies laid iron rails, night and day, through hail and snow, at a fantastic rate. At home, there was euphoria: the Illustrated London News suggested that the military solution might be to send the navvies into hand-to-hand fighting, while officers on the scene admitted that the navvies could do more work in a day than a regiment could do in a week.

156172.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:40 am Reply with quote

The story of the American railroads is even more remarkable. North America was the creation of the railroads. When they first appeared the continent was largely empty; within eighty years of the railways' introduction it was basically full. The early lines were mostly small local tracks running from one town to another, built cheaply as a local initiative. The Americans relied more on ingenuity than on the massive capital investment used in Europe: those curves were tackled by the bogie, a swivelling wheel truck - with the consequence that bogie-less British engines couldn't be used on many American tracks. In any case, the American way was to build the engines light so that they could be manhandled back onto the tracks by the passengers when they derailed. American locomotives could soon outperform the British, though one consequence of the freewheeling, innovative approach taken in the USA was a very poor safety record there.

For some time the railway was an Eastern Seaboard phenomenon; the great push west didn't start till the 1850s. Once again it was the navvies who made it possible. An inrush of Irish labour following the 1847 potato blight inaugurated the wild jamboree which stapled the iron rails across the plains and over the mountains, creating the American economy and vast fortunes with it. By 1880 the frontier had gone. A surveyor named Edward Gillette mentions in his journal the strange experience of surveying a track through the wilderness and then retracing his footsteps a year later to find cities already in existence along the way he had come.

The last great iconic project was the coast-to-coast link. It faced huge and apparently insuperable difficulties, and this time the solution was Chinese labour recruited in California building from the west, meeting Irish teams building from the east. The latter used a process developed by the brothers Jack and Dan Casement whereby the track could be laid across the prairie as fast as a man could walk: supplies were shunted up the existing track and assembled on the move, and when the car was empty it was manhandled off the track so that the next one could come up behind it. The whole operation was accompanied by a mobile shantytown including 500 cattle, and multi-story dormitory cars.

156185.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:49 am Reply with quote

In 1942, the old rails over Promontory Summit were salvaged for the war effort; the event was marked by a ceremonial "undriving" of the last iron spike.

156187.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:50 am Reply with quote

Sorry, sources:

The Railway Navvies (Terry Coleman)
Moguls and Iron Men: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad (James McCague)

Molly Cule
156225.  Tue Mar 13, 2007 1:26 pm Reply with quote

Wembley Arena was built for the 1934 Empire Games and originally housed a swimming pool.

Wembley Stadium was built for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. It was supposed to have been demolished at the end of the Exhibition but was saved at the suggestion of Sir James Stevenson, a Scot who was chair of the organising committee for the Exhibition. The turf was first cut by King George V.

One of the trains used to transport materials in and out for building Wembley is buried under the arena.

Long before either the arena or the stadium were built, an MP and chairman of the Metropolitan railway named Watkins, decided to build a tower to rival the Eiffel tower, he invited Gustave Eiffel to design it but he said no saying "French people would not think me so good a Frenchman as I hope I am”, so Watkins held a competition and picked a design by Sir Benjamin Baker who designed the Forth Bridge with an eight, then four legged tower (cheaper) like the Eiffel tower. It was planned to have two platforms and a small area at the top with restaurants, theatres, dancing rooms, exhibitions and Turkish baths in it. The tower was served by the Metropolitan line train and a pleasure garden and pagodas surrounded it. The tower however was built on unstable foundations and never finished and was known as the ‘London Stump’. It was closed and the scrap steel was exported to Italy.

When Wembley started being rebuilt the builders found the foundations of the tower on the site.

Molly Cule
156468.  Wed Mar 14, 2007 9:12 am Reply with quote

If there are any questions about bridges in the engineering show this could be a useful note -

Until 1750 there were only 2 ways to cross the thames, over london bridge or on the horse-ferry between lambeth and millbank.

Enterprising boatsmen would row you across for a small fee. They rowed up and down the Thames shouting 'Oars! Oars!' to passersby. Londoners were used to this, people from out of town were sometimes surprised if they assumed the boatsmen were dropping their aitches.

s the london companion

Molly Cule
156732.  Thu Mar 15, 2007 6:34 am Reply with quote

One of Brunel's less well-known achievements was a pre-fabricated hospital he built and shipped out to Renkioi, in Turkey, to care for wounded soldiers in the Crimean War. Brunel's design enhanced air circulation and drastically cut hospital-borne infections, earning it high praise from Florence Nightingale, who called its wards 'those magnificent huts'.


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