Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2421

by John H. Lienhard

Today, serendipity in the whirlwind. 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.

This world is sometimes more odd than we imagine. When people ask me how I get program ideas, I say that I follow threads of context. Well, a while ago I XeroXed some pages about a little-known 19th-century meteorologist -- William Ferrel.

That was before Hurricane Ike disrupted the Gulf Coast. After Ike, I finally took those pages off to lunch and read about Ferrel's work on tides and cyclonic action. Suddenly, he seemed very timely. Then the Internet revealed that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, had given his name to a small ship, The Ferrel. Perhaps he was not so obscure after all.

The William Ferrel as a NOAA vessel

That evening we went to a play with a geophysicist whose company does subsea acoustic oil exploration in the Gulf. Before the curtain, I asked if he'd heard of Ferrel. He said, "Oh yes. I have a ship named after him -- I bought it after NOAA decommissioned it in 2002." "You what!" I said. (After all, you might find coincidences like that at the movies -- but not in real life.)

William Ferrel He went on to say, "I try to name all my ships after great scientists, but this one already had a fine name." So I guess you and I need to find out what this Ferrel actually did. He was born in remote south central Pennsylvania, in 1817. His family moved down into West Virginia where he attended a one-room schoolhouse. Ferrel was shy, very smart, and he hungered to learn about science. He learned enough to become a school teacher himself; then he taught until he'd earned enough to pay for college. He finally graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia.

After that, he went back to teaching while he studied the works of Newton and LaPlace. And he realized that LaPlace's theory of tidal action was oversimplified. LaPlace had ignored friction. Ferrel included friction and found that it not only affects tides, but also constantly slows Earth's rotation slightly. Ferrel created an early analogue computer that could predict tidal motions.

Then he saw that his methods for analyzing tides could also be applied to atmospheric movement. He showed that, hot air rising while Earth rotates will induce a secondary acceleration -- a so-called Coriolis acceleration. That's what creates the rotational motions of winds. He'd shown us how cyclonic storms work.

Prominence finally caught up with Ferrel. He took a high post with the Coast Survey. He was made a member, not only of the National Academy, but of several European academies as well. He truly was a giant in American science a century-and-a-half ago.

Now, thanks to Ferrel, when hurricanes come, we can predict them far enough ahead to seek cover. We have a basis for deciding to evacuate or to hunker down. And my friend's ship, the Ferrel, served as a refuge to its crew's families while Ike battered the Louisiana coast. It proved to be a sturdy safe haven against the very winds that its namesake had shown us how to anticipate.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

H. L. Burstyn, Ferrel, William. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, C. C. Gillispie, ed., Vol. IV (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975): pp. 590-592.

I am most grateful to Alton L. (Jerry) Warren, CEO of Reservoir Geophysical Corporation, for his counsel -- and for having rescued the fine NOAA ship Ferrel from a scrap yard in Norfolk, VA, where its distinguished career as a research vessel would otherwise have ended. Warren has continued to use the vessel in the service of government and university oceanographic research. The image of William Ferrel is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Warren kindly provided the three ship photos.

For a detailed account of The Ferrel and its service as a NOAA vessel, see: http://www.moc.noaa.gov/fe/index.htm

Note added, September 22, 2017: A final crowning irony. The Warrens finally retired and sold the William Ferrel ship. Then, a British family of four took it to sea during the terrible Hurrican Maria. The storm capsized it on the shores of Puerto Rico, killing the husband. The wife and two boys were saved in a dramatic rescue by the combined forces of the US Coast Guard and the Royal British Navy. But the ship perished in a storm whose coming its namesake had helped to predict.

The Ferrel, reoutfitted
The Ferrel refurbished and reoutfitted

The Ferrel with new paint
The Ferrel in dry dock, having just received a new coat of paint

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.