Today, we look for the soul of a machine. 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.
Franz Reuleaux was born in
Eschweiler, Germany, in 1829, while engineering
education was in its infancy. He trained as an
engineer in several of the new German schools of
engineering. In 1856 he himself became a professor
of machine design.
Reuleaux published his first book in 1861 -- a
machine-design handbook with the odd title,
The Constructor. The book was popular
in its time, but a 20th-century expert shrugged it
off as "a recipe book"!
Reuleaux's field was kinematics. The nature of the
subject displays his genius, but it also shows us
why much of the 20th century passed him by.
Kinematics is the analysis of machine motions
without regard to the forces that drive them. The
motions of gears and linkages can be very
sophisticated. The mechanism that rotates and
extends a robot's arm from one position to another,
for example -- it's far from simple. Motion is the
first problem a machine designer has to face.
Reuleaux eventually went aground on the unhappy
fact that it is not the last.
In 1875 Reuleaux published a strong and
philosophical book on kinematics, and it was hailed
as definitive. In it he wove today's scheme for
classifying mechanisms and machine motions. But
machines do more than just move. They bear and
exert forces. They wear out. They're made of
Engineers soon wanted to see the theory of motions
related to these matters. They wanted it brought
down to the hard earth. Reuleaux eventually wrote a
second book that addressed such issues; but by then
he was 71, and he'd lost his audience.
Reuleaux's wide-ranging mind was more concerned
with beauty than it was with the needs of the
marketplace. He translated Longfellow's
Hiawatha into German. He published
travel journals. And as German science-based
engineering gave way to a view of engineering that
began and ended in practice, he was left behind.
Yet he provided the whole theory of machine
motions. Today's work on robotics forces us to go
back and reread Reuleaux, and when we do, his words
have a haunting quality. Here he explains how all
machine motions reduce to rolling action:
The machine becomes instinct with a life of its
own through the rolling [motion] everywhere
connected with it ... In the midst of [their
distracting noise, machines] carry on their
noisless ... rolling. [These motions are] the soul
of the machine.
Machines ultimately exist in hard reality, but
Reuleaux reminds us that the soul of the machine
reflects the soul of its inventor -- that while we
surely want to end in hard reality, it is not the
right place to begin.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds