Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 581:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 581.

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 created them.

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 bearing.

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 in WW-II.

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 large structures.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Carroll, B., The Engineers: 200 years at Work for Australia. Barton, Australia: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988, pp. 127-129.

Note Added, March 16, 2021: A new biography of Michell came out in 2020: S. Phillip, What Came out of the Box: A Biography of AGM Michell. (Tellwell Talent, 2020).

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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