Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2732: EARLY COMPUTERS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, some early computers. 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.

1956 found me working for Pacific Car and Foundry [now renamed as PACCAR] designing equipment for tractors. Of course we used whatever off-the-shelf parts we could in our designs -- springs, bearings, pulleys, seals ... One ritual in those days was the infamous three-martini lunch with parts-manufacturer's representatives. I'd struggle to drink as little as possible and learn as much as I could.

Those sales people wanted to make it easy for us to select their parts. And selection is complicated. Example: take the design of a simple spring: If it's to deflect, say two inches under a one-ton load, we have to chose workable spring and wire diameters. We need to find a material with the right stiffness, strength, corrosion resistance, fatigue lifetime. We need an optimal number of coils per inch. To sell us springs, a salesman helped us through that selection.

So, when I dug into an old drawer yesterday, I found a special slide rule made by the Associated Spring Corporation -- a cheap celluloid throw-away with scales on the front and back. Our regular slide rules were made of sturdy bamboo or aluminum. They had to survive years of constant daily use, but this was for rare occasions. How many springs does an engineer design?

Lufkin screw selector Then I dug deeper in that old drawer. More flimsy slide rules emerged. A cardboard Lufkin Tools circular slide rule. It helped chose threaded screws and taps. The Standard Pressed Steel Company had one for sizing socket screws. The fanciest one was from the Lock Joint Pipe Company -- a 10-scale slide rule for sizing pipes and minimizing the pressure loss of liquid flowing through them.

Those four were all I still have. But we design engineers once collected them like baseball cards. Mine bear copyright dates from 1938 to '62. Those dates match the year when John Atanasoff began building the first digital computer, and the year IBM produced its powerful 7094 computer. As big computers entered our lives, companies stopped giving us these useful Cracker Jack prizes.

Now, an odd catch: Surely, over fifty years later, we can just Google "spring design software". Well I tried and found two things: Vastly over-simplified routines or very expensive downloadable software.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. When I look back at that celluloid slide rule, my eyes blur over the complexity of it. Our engineering in the late forties through the early '70s was constantly drenched in calculation and looking things up in tables. These little band aids provided modest, but welcome, help.

Change usually comes on little cat feet. Digital computation has quietly taken over our once-crushing load of calculation. As I dig into my musty old drawer I realize how different engineering now is. And my nostalgia on finding these quaint old calculators is muted. It's quickly replaced with a great heaving sigh of relief.

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

(Theme music)


The Wikipedia page "Spring (device)" helps us see the complexity of a seemingly simple machine element.
Hydraulic slide rule
Lock Joint Pipe Co. Hazen Williams Hydraulic Slide Rule with 10 scales. This one needs an instruction manual. For a large view, click on this image.

No sooner than this aired, listener John Morreale wrote to recommend this on-line spring analyzing software. If you guess a spring design, it will do the stress analysis and allow you to iterate until you have the spring you want.

This episode was first aired on August 2, 2011



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.