fighting the lack of good ideas

steam by andrea sutcliffe

Andrea Sutcliffe’s book Steam: The Untold Story of American’s First Great Invention was a pure joy to read. Being the second review I’m writing with my “new” system, I hope you find this book as interesting as I have.

In 1784, James Rumsey designed a boat that could, by purely mechanical means, move its way upstream. What he devised was truly brilliant: imagine a catamaran or pontoon boat with a platform across the two hulls. Anchored to the platform is a waterwheel. The waterwheel dips into the river, and is connected via a linkage to poles that push the boat against the current like a Venetian Gondola.

Why did he develop such a device? Because at the time, shipping by barge etc was incredibly simple downstream – you load-up the barge, give it a small crew, and float downriver. But because there was no way of mechanically returning the vessel upstream (without using sail power, which can be fickle to use, and uses a lot of otherwise-usable cargo area). So barges and shipping vessels tended to be crudely made so they would only ever go downstream – at their destination they’d be turned into building materials. And the crews would have to return on foot. To put this in perspective, it took about 4 weeks to float a barge from Pittsburg down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans. And it took about 6 months to get home.

Enter the need for reliable mechanical ship propulsion.

Beginning in his teens as a surveyor for the 6th Lord Fairfax, George Washington became enamored with the idea of inland navigation – that is, using streams, canals, rivers, and lakes to transport people and goods instead of the ocean. During his tenure as a surveyor, then an engineer, then a general, he never lost sight of what he viewed as the budding nation’s biggest hurdle to westward expansion – the overwhelmingly high cost of transporting goods from east to west, and vice versa. Along the coast, transport was simple and cheap. But to go far inland made prices exorbitantly high for both consumers and shippers – which made markets hard to tap.

The initial days of the steam wars are proof that ideas are worthless. Stationary steam engines, like those made by Boulton & Watt were too heavy and inefficient to possibly consider putting on a boat – at any scale. So while the idea of steam-powered travel had been running around folks’ minds for 20+ years by the time Rumsey built his simple mechanical boat, there was no way to practically use it.

What was needed were major improvements on steam engine design and implementation before wider applications for their power could be found. This is where the steamboat wars start to become exciting. Independently, Rumsey and a man named John Fitch (with his business partner) developed the pipe boiler which reduced the amount of water needed for operating an engine for the same power output, increased fuel efficiency, cut heating time, and lightened the engine itself. Traditional steam engines used a pot boiler – effectively a massive tank of water that would be heated in gestalt. As anyone who has ever timed how long it takes to start boiling water in a tea kettle vs a stock pot knows, water is very difficult to heat, and lots of energy is needed to move it even a couple degrees.

The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom none of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. –Thomas Jefferson

Fascinatingly, Thomas Jefferson was against the idea of patents and copyright law, and likely would have campaigned heavily against it in the Constitutional process had he not been Minister to France. From a letter he wrote years after serving on the first Patent Commission Board:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature… Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising form them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society.

Contrast this to the efforts of both Fitch and Rumsey who lobbied for patent boards of some kind (at both the state and federal levels) between the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Unites States Constitution.

Sutcliffe’s account of the first “steamboat wars” shows that intellectual property litigation is an expensive, time-consuming, and distracting effort – whose end may or may not have any value.

Progress is an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. –George Orwell

Thornton’s condenser is undoubtedly one of the best calculated to condense without a jet of water, but I conceive the difficulty of getting rid of the air insurmountable .. when [the air] is drove back again by the steam to the cold condenser, it becomes nearly equal to common air in density, and skulks into the bottom of the condenser for security. –John Fitch (describing a new condenser design in 1790)

Based upon the extensive research Ms Sutcliffe has done into the early history and designs of steam engines and their associated mechanical conveyances, an old idea of mine has newly gained plausible validity: that of a steam-powered tank. Back in high school I postulated that both the power-to-weight and power-to-size ratio of steam engines had advanced sufficiently by the late 1850s that, in conjunction with a primitive form of caterpillar track design (which Fitch would have called an “endless chain of feet” (vs an early idea of his to use an “endless chain of paddles”)), that the first fully-mechanized war machines could have been built and sent into battle not in WWI, as the first tanks actually were, but instead during the Civil War – 50 years sooner. Leonardo Da Vinci has designed a human-powered armored car in the late 15th century. Replacing man power with steam power could have been a logical thing to have done – but no one ever did.

In the availability of men willing to persevere with a possibly “ridiculous” idea, America had an advantage. –Frank D Pager on the early successes of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Fitch and Rumsey took their war to the people in a series of “pamphlets” published over the course of many months. From Sutcliffe’s description of a “pamphlet” in this context, it seems they were the late 18th century version of a sourced blog or op-ed. Ranging from 20 to 50 (or more) pages in length, with affidavits, letters, and histories presented, the pamphlet was the common man’s research or position paper. I suppose they may have been used by others, too – but the context given in Steam shows them used as marketing and propaganda pieces.

He that studies and writes on the improvements of the arts and sciences labours to benefit generations unborn, for it is impossible that his contemporaries will pay any attention to him. –Oliver Evans

It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you. –Tony Benn (British Labour politician)

Seems that’s where Ghandi may have gotten the inspiration for this famous quotation:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Or perhaps it was Benn who was inspired by Ghandi. Or maybe they just realized the same thing independently.

family reunion and a new trip

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I flew up to NJ for my family reunion (held near South Bound Brook every last Saturday in June). I’ve missed the last few due to other things getting in the way (like living in Singapore and getting married ;)) – so it was great to be able to catch up with some people I haven’t seen in 3+ years, but sad that not everyone could make it.

Excluding the cruddy service we got on US Air from CVG, the trip was pretty good. The Sheraton at Newark Airport bumped us to the “lounge level” (that floor you need your room card to get to). The picnic was fun. And dinner that evening at one of my favored restaurants in Whitehouse Station was tasty, too.

Sunday early we got to Newark Penn Station to do something neither of us has ever done before in the US (and my wife, well, ever) – take a “substantial” train ride! I’ve taken the train back and forth between Albany and NY Penn a few times, and I’ve taken the train in the UK, but never anything longer than a couple hours in the US.

The Cardinal line runs 3 days a week, and hits myriad stations on its way from NY Penn (the stop before we got on) to Chicago (we got off in Cincinnati).

Some things we learned:

  • coach class seats are comfy – for the first few hours; after this, a room would have been a LOT better
  • had we bought a room, our meals would have been included
  • it’s intensely bizarre to eat going backwards at 75mph
  • the NRHS does narrated tours of part of the Cardinal run (West-to-East) a couple days a week
  • there are way more train stations in this country than I would have expected: but never quite where you want them to be
  • meals are eaten with whomever they set at your table – so unless you’re in a group of 3+, you’ll be eating with total strangers

We’re both constantly checking Amtrak now for any future trips – both leisure and business – to see if taking the train is a better deal than flying… and a non-trivial percentage of the time, it is turning out to be so 🙂

The only truly bad part of the trip was the taxi ride from the Cincinnati Amtrak station to CVG – the guy who picked us up waited until we got to the airport to claim his credit card reader was down (future reference – if the machine is off/”down”, it’s probably that the driver wants cash in his pocket, or for change, but he is still REQUIRED to take your card info by hand). Then he offered for us to “just buy gas” for him instead of pay him. Then he didn’t shut the meter off when he drove us to an ATM (at the airport terminal) to get cash out for paying the sheister. When I talked to the taxi owner the next day, he set us straight on how that should have worked, and fired the driver for cheating us. Oh – and he also told about all the “mechanical and electrical” issues his car had.. yeah – extremely unprofessional 🙁

note to anyone who sent models to the freight yard in phoenix

Reprinted from the NYO&WRHS Yahoo Group (owrhs at yahoogroups dot com).

To anyone who sent any model locomotives and/or rolling stock to The Freight Yard in Phoenix, AZ for custom painting, please be advised The Freight Yard closed its doors in May and the proprietor made a midnight raid on his shop and removed all inventory to his home in Anthem, AZ including all stock delivered to him by us for painting. His shop phone is disconnected, his website is down, he doesn’t answer emails, and his business is no longer listed in Model Railroading magazine. He made no notifications to any of us consignors, gave no address nor phone number such we could contact him to recover our models. I had delivered an MKT brass EMD NW2 Phase IV for custom painting in NYO&W livery in February.

After repeated failures in June to learn status on my consignment (I phoned the shop monthly in Mar and April to check on status, was out of state in May), I drove the 90 miles to personally check on his shop, found it empty and stripped of all inventory, shelves, counters. The property administrator had posted an inventory seizure notice and lock on the store’s door due to unpaid rent but the proprietor had first cleaned out the store before the notice was posted (dated 18 May 2010). The notice had the administrator’s name and phone number and through the property management company (Paula at Lynn Morrison Co, Tucson, AZ) and Google searches, I was able to track down the proprietor’s home address and phone number:

Martin Cohen
3868 W. Links Dr.
Anthem, AZ 85086
PH 623-551-8842

Martin does not return phone calls as he promises. He’s a smooth talker, very pleasant on the phone, makes a lot of promises but follows through with none of them. After I requested he return it to me, he twice said he mailed my locomotive (unpainted – he said he couldn’t paint [in his garage] at least until October when the weather cools off). My own feeling is he hopes the consignors will give up (if no contact from consignee after a period of time, he can claim the engines as “abandoned property” and that he could sell the engines on eBay or whatever). After securing his home phone number, I pestered him with phone calls from June through the end of July when, after one last call this past Sunday evening, he told me that the Postal Service had “returned as undeliverable” my locomotive the previous Friday. He did not phone me to advise me that he had the engine. I told him I’d be down the next morning to pick it up. He tried to put me off by claiming medical appointments but I preempted him by showing up at his door at 7AM Monday. He handed me my loco, I checked it out (all OK), and was on my way. One other consignor of six locomotives in the Phoenix area to whom I provided Cohen’s home contact information was able to do the same thing. Anyone who shipped a locomotive to The Freight Yard likely does not have the advantage of proximity. I had also reported the engine as stolen to the Phoenix Police Department (602-262-6151) the previous week (I notified Phoenix police of its recovery. I declined to press charges.). Also, if the Police had contacted him, this might have hastened the sudden reappearance of my locomotive.

I also suggest keeping detailed records of any communication/contacts with Martin Cohen. If by mail, send a letter with Signature Confirmation or Certified Mail. If he says he will return the locomotive by mail, insist he send it by Priority Mail with the above SC, CM, or, at least, with Delivery Confirmation; each will have a tracking number. Demand he tell you the tracking number. This will prove he actually sent it. Insurance is up to you. Good luck in getting any deposit back; I just wrote off my $116 deposit. All I wanted was the return of my locomotive.

If anyone needs further information, please feel free to contact me onlist or off or phone me (# below).

Anyone know of a reliable high quality custom model RR paint shop?

Good luck!
Fred Stevens, Arizona Division of the New York, Ontario and Western
Prescott, AZ

Fred’s comments about this post (and my request to reprint it here) to the mailing list:

I posted the same message to all six of the model RR Groups to which I belong including the large HOrailroading Group (about 2900 members).

My intent was informative rather than to drive the guy out of business (not that he has much, if any business left and he drove himself out of business) nor defamation of character (he defamed himself). While I declined the Phoenix detective’s question of whether or not to press charges (grand larceny aka grand theft locomotive), the perp was standing on the gallows platform with the noose already tightened and the platform would be released if he didn’t return my NW2. I have little use for con artists…

Fred Stevens

Another member (Ed H) of the group said the following, too:

I was involved, as a victim, in an Issue like this a number of years ago.
I Contacted the District Attorney in regards to the Restitution of Monies. They Contacted all the Victims, got the Notarized Statements & Receipts, and saw to it that the Full Amount paid, was returned.
Sounds like a Good Idea to do with this Unscrupulous Felon.