Today, two textbooks. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I found two books, side by side in the library
-- both about statics, how forces act on bodies in equilibrium. Take
a very simple example. Place a board over a ditch; then walk across it.
The dirt on either side exerts upward forces. They exactly equal your
weight and that of the board. As you cross the board, those two forces
change; but they always add up to the same amount.
That kind of force balancing can get very tricky. Yet it's essential in
designing any machine or structure -- from a simple lever to the Eiffel Tower.
Still, while the library catalog places these two books together, they could
hardly be more different -- one old, one new, both covering the same ground.
The 1891 book, Analytical Statics, is dense, formal, and austere --
but also clear and straightforward. The 1982 book, The Logic of Machines
and Structures, is richly illustrated and has little math. It teases
the mind with strange and unexpected results. It is fun. Each expands
my understanding of the other, but I'm drawn to the older and dryer of the two.
Some hoodlum has ripped a whole 62-page section out of this precious old book
and left it for dead. But its ruined and neglected carcass still harbors a story.
It was written by an important Cambridge University mathematician, Edward John Routh.
Routh was educated at Cambridge University where he edged out
James Clerk Maxwell for top honors. He almost went to work
for famed Greenwich astronomer, George Airy. But then,
instead, he married Airy's eldest daughter.
Routh taught at Cambridge the rest of his life. Check the Internet and you'll find
many Routh theorems. Much of his important work is in use today. But Cambridge
remembers his greatness as a teacher. As students presented his retirement gift,
they told a story about an undergraduate who had trouble understanding the complex
way we use statics to explain how bodies float in water.
He couldn't see how anything could float. The students claimed that Routh's explanation
of floating was so convincing that the fellow then went away wondering how anything could
Actually, that story suggests something of the subtleties we engineers face when we write
force balances. Statics is the tool we use if we're concerned with the
stability of cargo ships, the
catenary shape of hanging chains, or the design of
excavating shovels. Look at either of these two books and we
see our civilization emerging out of its pages. Many of the same examples appear in both,
yet they are framed so very differently.
The new book shows pictures of the World Trade Center, steam engines, and amusement park
rides. Routh's old book shows the graceful mathematics that lets us design in three
dimensions. But together they remind me that my world, which sometimes seems to be shifting
under my feet, is still governed by stabilizing forces -- forces that stay constant from
one generation to the next.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. J. Routh, A Treatise on Analytical Statics with Numerous Examples. Vol. I, 2nd ed.
(Cambridge: at the University Press, 1909) (1st ed. 1891).
P. Sandori, The Logic of Machines and Structures. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982).
Routh's online biography and photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_John_Routh
My thanks to UH Colleague Lewis Wheeler for his counsel.