The R100 and the R101

An instructive saga in the history of engineering is the story of the British airships R100 and R101. As part of a grand social experiment, the R100 was built by private industry (it was designed by Barnes Wallis), while the R101 was built by the British government (specifically, by the Air Ministry, under Lord Thomson). The R100 worked fine, and made a test flight to Canada in August 1930 (the trip took 78 hours). Here is the R100 over a Toronto building:

The R100 was huge. Here is a size comparison of the R100 (219 m long) and an Airbus A380 (73 m long):

While the government-built R101 used servo motors to control its gigantic rudder, the R100 team had worked out that the rudder could actually be operated quite easily by hand, using a steering wheel and cables. The government-built R101 was beset by poor choices, in fact. It contained overly heavy engines, a steel frame, and too much dead weight overall. After construction, the R101 had to be lengthened by inserting a new 14-metre section in the centre, in order to increase lift. This alteration caused a number of problems. Its design also allowed the internal hydrogen-filled gasbags to chafe against the frame, there were serious problems with the outer covering, and several “innovative” design ideas were never properly tested.

There was enormous political pressure for the R101 to fly before it was ready to do so. On the evening of 4 October 1930, it departed for India with a crowd of VIPs on board. It never arrived, crashing in bad weather over France, and bursting into flames. The disaster led to the R100 also being grounded, and the British government abandoned any thoughts of flying airships (as the rest of the world was to do after the Hindenburg disaster).

There are all kinds of lessons to be drawn from the saga of the R100 and the R101. One of them is that optimism is not a viable strategy for safety-critical engineering. Another is that engineers test things. As Kipling says, “They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.” A third is that risky designs and fixed deadlines simply do not mix.


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A History of Science in 12 Books

Here are twelve influential books covering the history of science and mathematics. All of them have changed the world in some way:


1: Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC). Possibly the most influential mathematics book ever written, and used as a textbook for more than 2,000 years.


2: De rerum natura by Lucretius (c. 50 BC). An Epicurean, atomistic view of the universe, expressed as a lengthy poem.


3: The Vienna Dioscurides (c. 510 AD). Based on earlier Greek works, this illustrated guide to botany continued to have an influence for centuries after it was written.


4: De humani corporis fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1543). The first modern anatomy book.


5: Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632). The brilliant sales pitch for the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun.


6: Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827–1838). A classic work of ornithology.


7: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). The book which started the evolutionary ball rolling.


8: Beilstein’s Handbook of Organic Chemistry (1881). Still (revised, in digital form) the definitive reference work in organic chemistry.


9: Relativity: The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein (1916). An explanation of relativity by the man himself.


10: Éléments de mathématique by “Nicolas Bourbaki” (1935 onwards). A reworking of mathematics which gave us words like “injective.”


11: Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs by Niklaus Wirth (1976). One of the early influential books on structured programming.


12: Introduction to VLSI Systems by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway (1980). The book which revolutionised silicon chip design.

That’s four books of biology, four of other science, two of mathematics, and two of modern IT. I welcome any suggestions for other books I should have included.


When the towers fell


The World Trade Center towers (photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I continue to see bizarre and ill-informed conspiracy theories on the Internet about the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers (above). This is in spite of the detailed investigations of, and voluminous reports on, the event.


Steel softens at temperatures well below the melting point of 1400°C

In fact, it has long been known that structural steel buildings like the World Trade Center can collapse due to fire. In 1967, the structural steel roof of McCormick Place in Chicago collapsed because of softening due to a fire. This collapse began only about 30–45 minutes after the fire was reported.


The World Trade Center under construction (photo: Eric Shaw White)

In the case of the World Trade Center, this fundamental problem with structural steel was combined with building-specific design flaws. Still, in my view, concrete construction is simply safer. Concrete resists fire far better than steel, and locating fire escapes inside a thick concrete core assists evacuation, should that be needed. The 9/11 conspiracy theories are just silly, though.


A concrete tower under construction in Australia (photo: Erin Silversmith,)


Disasters in science #3

Engineers have a moral obligation to take great care with safety-related issues. As Kipling says, “They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose. They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.


Disasters in science #2

This “meme” is intended to underscore the fact that engineers have a moral obligation to take great care with safety-related issues. As Kipling says, “It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.


The magnificent Doble steam car

The video above shows the beautiful 1920s Doble steam car owned by Jay Leno (see this article). This magnificent vehicle represents the pinnacle of a technology that was already dead when it was built. A front-mounted boiler powers four cylinders at the rear, which drive the back wheels via spur gears (see below). There is no traditional gearbox or transmission. The steam is condensed and recycled, so that water does not have to be constantly replenished. All very efficient.

Leno says that “The last days of an old technology are almost always better than the first days of a new technology,” and aesthetically (in spite of my love of solar cars) he is probably right. Something similar can be said about the ultimate examples of castle-building, which occurred when castles were already obsolete (see below). So watch the video of this wonderful vintage car!


How many parts?

The diagram below shows the complexity, in terms of numbers of parts, of some human constructions. Interestingly, there is an approximate complexity plateau which starts at or before the Great Pyramid of Giza (constructed between about 2580 BC and 2560 BC, and composed of around 2.3 million stone blocks). The plateau continues through the dome of Florence Cathedral (brilliantly designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, made up of over 4 million bricks, and completed in 1436). A late member of the plateau is the Boeing 747 (first flown in 1969, and composed of around 6 million parts). The Great Pyramid required the resources of a nation, Brunelleschi’s dome those of a city-state, and the 747 those of a large company.

Somewhat less complex are the Antikythera mechanism and John Harrison’s H1 chronometer (a five-year effort by one man). The PDP-8/S (1966) and the original Apple Macintosh (1984) were widely popular low-cost computers. For those, I’ve interpreted “parts” as either transistors, individual bits of ferrite core memory, or bytes of semiconductor memory.

The recent iPhone 6s stands out from the simpler computers: the A9 processor has over 3 billion transistors, and the phone comes with at least 18 GB of memory. The iPhone 6s puts the power of a mid-80s Cray-2 supercomputer in a handheld device. Producing one requires the resources of an international network of specialised companies, with the processor and memory being fabricated in South Korea or Taiwan, the camera and display in Japan, and the accelerometer in Germany. The software is developed in the USA, and final assembly is mostly done in China. It seem unlikely that any one nation would be able to construct a device as complex as this.

Maybe I should get one.