Today, meet a quiet hi-tech genius from the
Australian bush country. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'm in an Australian banquet
hall. It's an award ceremony. The big event is
giving out the Michell Medal. A man goes to the
podium while his family applauds from a nearby
table. It's a big moment for him. Maybe I should
find out who Michell was.
Anthony Michell's parents moved to Australia --
then an English Colony -- during its gold rush in
the 1850s. He was born in 1870. He studied civil
engineering at Melbourne University. He lived a
low-key life. He never married. He was a quiet,
gentle genius who lived in an interior world.
Michell began working with the new theory of
viscous liquids -- like lubricating oils. In 1905
he wrote a paper on lubricating flat surfaces. By
then, Germany was the world leader in fluid
mechanics. So he published his work in a German
journal. He also patented a new kind of thrust
England took little note of his paper or of his
patent. He tried to interest the British Navy, but
no luck. Then, during WW-I, the British captured a
German U-boat intact. They took it home, and
English engineers dismantled it.
Sure enough, there was Michell's thrust bearing.
The Germans understood what the English had not.
This new bearing took less space and wasted less
power to friction. The English finally took an
interest in the bearing, but now the war was over.
Next, Michell invented a rotary engine. Ford and GM
were interested. It was more efficient than
anything they had. But they'd have to retool to use
it. They would've lost some profits in the short
term. In the end, they turned it down. But today
you can see Michell engines at the Smithsonian. The
U.S. Navy finally had several built for airplanes
A man who worked with Michell looked at his
commercial failures. "Too few people," he grumbled,
"trying to do too much with too little capital."
But no matter! We've caught the glint of Michell's
eerie vision. That vision played out for half a
century. Michell poured out a whole gallery of
invention -- pumps, turbines, more bearings,
hydraulic transmissions, and more. As a civil
engineer he showed us how to optimize the shape of
Michell didn't get rich. But in him we pick up a
common thread of this series. He's one more person
whose reward was the internal beauty of creating
things. His friends called him logical, patient,
and completely without condescension -- always
helpful and understanding.
And that is where our minds can also come to rest
when we really find the pleasure of making
something new and beautiful.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds