On October 17th, 2017 we learned about

A history of air pollution recorded on preserved bird bellies

History is usually studied in written records, man-made objects, rocks and bones. It’s no surprise that we generally rely on durable materials like this, but more studies of more recent history aren’t so limited. Thanks to careful preservation of biological samples from around 200 years ago, we can use softer, more delicate bits of biology to find out what was happening in the world, including picking up evidence of very indelible events, like air pollution from the industrial revolution. In that case, instead of looking at stone or tools, researched dug into museum collections to survey thousands of dead, but preserved, birds.

By the 1870s, parts of the United States were being overwhelmed by smoke from furnaces and steam engines. These early combustion engines opened up a lot of new possibilities in technology, but they also dumped a lot of soot on their surrounding neighborhoods. By 1874, places like Chicago were so choked with smoke that it obscured the Sun on a daily basis, a scenario we usually associate with natural disasters. These smokey years have been documented in some forms, but biologists wanted to find data on air pollution across a wider territory and time span. The record they then turned to was the accumulated soot that was still stuck to the feathers of birds collected from the 1800s to the present day.

Documenting accumulated dirt

The researchers traveled to museums around America’s so-called Rust Belt to compare as birds across different decades and locales. Instead of taking samples of soot for chemical analysis, they measured the overall level of contamination on a bird’s body by taking photos, then quantifying exactly how dark its white feathers had become. To make sure varying light levels or human error didn’t throw off these measurements, each bird was placed next to a paint strip called a reflectance that allowed each photo to be properly calibrated, ensuring that the gray on a woodpecker or horned lark’s belly was the result of smoke and not a shadow. Once the data was gathered, it was plotted by location and time frame, revealing the history of America’s air quality with impressive specificity.

The dirtiest birds were dated from the beginning of the 20th century, when industrial air pollution was at its peak. Feathers were cleaner when manufacturing declined during the Great Depression, and were then dirtier again during World War II. Birds after the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act looked cleaner than their predecessors, and those that had lived after 1963’s Clean Air Act were cleaner still. When he birds were laid next to each other, the gradation was obvious enough that my four- and eight-year-old immediately picked up on it. My eight-year-old also commented that the dirtier birds were generally smaller as well. Unfortunately, the effects this soot might have had on the birds (ruling out age or other nutritional differences) wasn’t in the study’s scope.

Bird breathing problems

Other studies, however, have looked at the effects on air pollution on our feathered friends, even before they’re covered in soot. Beyond canaries in coal mines, birds’ health has been found to decline from air pollutants faster than humans, as pollutants often lead to thinner egg shells and lower birth rates. Relative body sizes probably play a role, but scientists suspect that bird respiration also contributes to their sensitivity to particulate in the air. While humans breath in and out in two distinct steps, birds breath in a more continuous cycle, essentially inhaling and exhaling in one step. This allows them to fuel the metabolism needed for high-energy tasks like flying without pumping their lungs as a ridiculous rate. It unfortunately also means that they’re more efficient at sucking in soot and other toxins that can cause health problems. So if the birds are suffering in an area, there’s a chance that human health is being attacked as well. Or to put it in a more positive light, you can breath easy if your avian neighbors are clean and in good health.

Source: Sooty Feathers Tell the History of Pollution in American Cities by Alex Furuya, Audubon

On October 9th, 2017 we learned about

The history of waffles, from the Stone Age to street food to your local supermarket

Humanity’s first shot at waffles was probably cooked on a rock. They weren’t a happy discovery made during a camping trip, but were probably some cutting-edge cuisine back in the Neolithic, or Stone Age over four thousand years ago. These proto-waffles certainly lacked refinements like an indented grid or maple syrup, but the core of what’s now a favorite breakfast food was still there— a cereal-based batter that was cooked not baked or fried, but seared on both sides. Like many cultural inventions, it seems safe to say that we’ve improved on this recipe over time, but clearly our ancestors knew they were on to something big, even before they could slather their dish in whipped cream and strawberries.

Once people started mastering metal in the Iron Age, rocks were traded out for metal plates, often held at the end of sticks to more easily reach into ovens. These early griddles basically sandwiched the batter as it was placed in heat, allowing it to be cooked in half the time. This concept would be picked up by the ancient Greeks, who called the resulting flat cakes obleios, or wafers. Like wafers you find in stores today, obleios weren’t especially cake-like, instead being cooked to a flatter, crispier consistency. They also flavored them as a savory food, using cheese and herbs instead of sugar and syrups. Europeans continued munching wafer-styled waffles well through the Middle Ages, with the only major innovations being to make them larger and sell them from street vendors.

Standing out with indented sqaures

The 13th century ushered in a new era of two-sided flat-cake cuisine, with waffles finally gaining their signature grid patterning, plus the name that we know today. A blacksmith enhanced the traditional iron griddle plates, hinging them together and putting in raised patterning that would increase the cakes’ surface area, allowing for more efficient heat distribution. More importantly, the indented squares that now marked waffles added a fun design element that caught people’s imaginations, earning the name wafel as a reference to a section of a bee’s honeycomb or woven webs. Other designs have been created since then, including coats of arms and even landscapes, but none are as iconic as the square pits we now associate with waffles.

Waffles’ popularity continued to grow throughout Europe. In the late 1500s, France’s King Charles IX even had to issue regulations concerning how close waffle vendors could cluster together to cut down on the number of fights in the streets. Recipes showed some divergence as well, with lower classes eating flatter, crispier waffles made from flour and water, while upper classes added more cake-like textures to their waffles with milk and eggs in the mix. This interest in softer, puffier waffles eventually grows into what we now think of as a Belgian waffle, which generally includes yeast to complete the effect. As popular as this concept seems now, it was certainly not part of the original flat cake recipe.

Sweeter, slower, faster and frozen in America

Waffles were brought to North America first with Pilgrims, and then again with Thomas Jefferson after a trip to France. Maple syrup finally found its home among the square divots in the 1800s, which alongside molasses, pushes waffles closer to the sweet side of the flavor spectrum. In 1869, Cornelius Swarthout of New York made his contribution to waffle history, patenting yet another improvement on the waffle griddle concept. Obviously the squares had to stay, but Swarthout’s design allowed waffles to be cooked over a stove top as long as the chef was willing to slow the process down, flipping the new waffle iron over to cook both sides. In a way, it was a step backwards from earlier technology that aimed to cook waffles faster, but it made waffle-cooking accessible in a new way, earning the date of the patent it’s own holiday in the form of National Waffle Day on August 24th of each year.

Waffles’ ties to technology meant that they kept changing over the 20th century. 1904 saw the invention of the waffle cone for ice cream, although considering waffles’ origins as flat, crispy wafers, you might not call this a major innovation. Alongside many other domestic objects, waffle irons were electrified in 1911, removing the need for the stove top, but often retaining the need for flipping. “Froffles” made frozen waffles available to consumers in 1953, although their egg-heavy flavor would eventually see them renamed as today’s Eggo products that are now part of a $211 million market in the United States. Finally, Americans got a proper introduction to Belgian waffles in 1964, although originally as “Brussels waffles.” Again, marketing concerns lead to a new name, and the vanilla and yeast-infused recipe was eventually circulated simply as Belgian waffles.

Blueberry, gluten-free, fried-chicken flat cakes

Today it seems that we have a huge range of waffle variations to choose from. Waffles can be found with fruit, whole wheat, chocolate, ice cream, pumpkin and of course, fried chicken. It seems that throughout this grand history, we’ve really only given up two aspects of previous waffles— the speed of cooking both sides at once, and the opportunity to buy waffles on the street from a horde of competing waferers when walking about town.

Source: Waffle History Page 1: The Origin & Evolution Of Waffles, The Nibble

On September 17th, 2017 we learned about

Researcher personally confirms electric eels’ airborne defense against potential predators

210 years ago, Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt learned that the preferred bait for catching electric eels was horses. Not horse meat, which the eels don’t eat, but live horses or mules themselves, which the eels treat as a threatening predator. Humboldt had hired locals living along the Amazon river to catch eels on his behalf for study, and was rather astonished when he saw the eels leaping out of the water to butt their faces into 30 panicking horses and mules. The eels were apparently shocking the large mammals, causing two drownings in the dramatic procedure that netted Homboldt five live eels. When describing the scene later on, most audiences dismissed the entire idea as “tommyrot,” but a dedicated biologist from Vanderbilt University has now confirmed the plausibility of the story, even though it meant getting repeatedly electrocuted himself.

Attacking in the air

Like many of Humboldt’s detractors, professor Ken Catania wasn’t interested in the use of horses as much as the supposed behavior of the eels. Electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) normally use their manipulation of electric currents to find their way through the murky waters of the Amazon river, stunning or paralyzing the small fish they consider prey for easy capture. The idea that eels might also throw themselves out of the water towards a threat seemed bonkers, at least until Catania was able to demonstrate this behavior in his lab. Using a plastic crocodile head, Catania was able to trigger a defensive response from captive eels. As the dummy predator lunged into the water, the eels would leap up, then touch their chin to the plastic lure to deliver a sizable shock. This behavior was demonstrated again using a plastic replica of a human hand that contained LEDs. When the eels felt they were in danger, from a horse hoof or a plastic hand, they did indeed jump up and shock their pursuers.

Now Catania has gone further, and found a way to more directly measure how much of a charge the eels can deliver to the terrestrial animals that threaten them. He did this by wiring up sensors to his own arm, then slamming his arm into an eel’s aquarium. The juvenile eel, named Finless, treated Catania’s arm as dangerous, leaping up to tag it with a shocking touch of the chin. By punching into a submerged ammeter, Catania could then measure exactly how much power the eel delivered, specifically looking at the amount of resistance in the temporary circuit that was tied to either air, water or flesh. He was also able to give some qualitative evaluation of the feeling of being shocked, which he said was akin to the zap delivered by electric fencing to livestock. He estimates that a larger, adult eel may be able to hit a predator with as much as nine-times the charge delivered by a taser, which is certainly enough to make a harassing crocodile think twice about eating an eel.

Registering resistance

The precise measurements Catania gathered help explain why the eels bother leaping up out of the water. A zap delivered underwater would be subject to the water’s conductivity, dissipating the shock delivered to the predator. The air acts more like an insulator, helping ensure all of a shocks stopping power be delivered to the larger animal’s body directly. This behavior has probably evolved slowly over time, starting with zaps in the water, then chin touches, and then getting out of the water. At this point, eels have refined the process to deliver a considerable amount of pain very efficiently, assuming they feel cornered enough to lash out in the first place.

As bold (and painful) as Catania’s research may be, he admits his arm isn’t a perfect proxy for all eel-predator interactions. Scales or thick fur may create different amounts of resistance to the flow of electricity, possibly making this defense less effective against actual crocodiles or shaggy dogs. That said, Humboldt’s account already shows that it’s apparently plenty painful for creatures as large as a horse.

Source: Biologist reaches into electric eel tank, comes out with equation to measure shocks by Heidi Hall, News at Vanderbilt

On September 14th, 2017 we learned about

How Cassini’s 13 years of study transformed our understanding of Saturn’s natural satellites

Friday, September 15, 2017, will be the first time my kids wake up without a spacecraft near Saturn. Launched in 1997, the Cassini spacecraft has had its mission extended twice, but a dwindling fuel supply is requiring that the orbiter be permanently added to Saturn’s atmosphere in a “disassembly” procedure expected to rapidly occur at around 70,000 miles-per-hour. This fiery end will give Cassini a unique shot at collecting a final bit of data, but is driven primarily to avoid the risk of the spacecraft accidentally damaging some of the moons we now know might be home to life. It should be expected that spending 13 years around Saturn would enhance our understanding of that part of the solar system, but it’s fair to say that Cassini revealed more than anyone was expected when the mission was first planned in the early 1980s. For now, my kids asked that I mainly focus on the moons.

Imperfect views before Cassini’s visit

Again, from our current vantage point that’s been filled with years of daily snapshots of a great gas giant and it’s ever growing list of moons, it may be hard to remember how little we knew of the outer solar system in the past. To back up a bit further, it’s worth mentioning the spacecraft’s namesake, Jean-Dominique Cassini, an astrologer-turned-astronomer that discovered gaps in Saturn’s rings, as well as the moons Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. At the behest of King Louis XIV, Cassini joined the Acadèmie Royale des Sciences in 1669, going on to become the director of the Observatoire de Paris in 1671. Beyond the connections to Saturn, it was thought that invoking Cassini for this mission to space would help garner support from the European Space Agency (ESA), which did indeed prove instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

Our view of Saturn didn’t change much until the Voyager 1 spacecraft flew by the planet in 1980. Instead of the inert lumps of icy rock people had once imagined, we saw hints of a diverse group of moons, begging for more investigation. Titan, for instance, was covered in a thick atmosphere, but Voyager 1 didn’t have any instruments that could see through the clouds to know what was below. This became a key part of the Cassini mission design, with the ESA taking the lead in designing the Huygens lander that would later be dropped on the surface of Titan. This collaboration, and some of the aforementioned goodwill that lead to some influential lobbying efforts by the ESA, became critical to seeing Cassini completed, as the project was almost canceled multiple times before it’s launch in 1997.

Surveying Saturn’s many moons

Touching down on Titan

Once launched, Cassini started sending back mountains of data that opened our eyes to all kinds of new possibilities around Saturn. The Huygens probe successfully visited Titan, revealing that the mix of surface liquids and organic molecules covering the moon might potentially be home to some form of life. In retrospect, dropping a lander into that environment wouldn’t be allowed today, but that’s only because we have now seen the surface of the moon, complete with lakes, riverbeds, dunes, weather and more.

Enceladus’ great geysers

The next eye-popping moon was less expected. Enceladus was observed in 2005 spraying saltwater geysers out of its surface into space. This unexpected site has since catapulted this small moon to the top of researchers’ wish-list of locations to revisit, as these geysers indicate that the moon is even more likely to be home to life than Titan. The salty spray has also been linked to Saturn’s giant “E” ring, which is now believed to be made primarily of ejected ice from Enceladus.

Rings’ debris mashes into moons

Beyond potentially habitable satellites, Cassini has had time to fill in gaps about other strange moons around Saturn. Iapetus had been a mystery for some time, as it seemed to be half white and half black. The detailed data from Cassini helped explain this appearance, and it was determined that dark red debris from another moon, Phoebe, was essentially painting Iapetus’ surface. So the dark side was heat-collecting dirt, and the light side was ice that hadn’t been painted enough to melt. The moon also had an odd ridge around it’s equator which is now thought to be the result of bombardment and debris collection. It’s not the only moon to exhibit this strange shape, as Daphnis and Pan seem to also have equatorial build-ups of their own.

Six moons seen for the first time

Daphnis has caught scientists’ eyes for more than it’s slightly oblong shape. The tiny moon is one of many that have been found in gaps between Saturn’s rings, although it still interacts with them. As the small bits of rock and debris move by Daphnis, the moon’s gravity creates waves in the rings shape. Other moons’ interactions aren’t quite so graceful though. In 2013, a moonlet tentatively known as “Peggy,” after the discoverer’s mother-in-law, was observed forming on the edge of Saturn’s “A” ring, only to have apparently been smashed by another object by the time researchers checked again in 2015. Even with that loss, Cassini has nonetheless discovered six new named moons around Saturn, including Methone, Pallene, Polydeuces, Daphnis, Anthe, and Aegeon, bringing the count up to 53, with a few still lingering as “provisional.”

Carrying on after Cassini’s crash

All of the above barely scratches as the surface of the research Cassini has made possible (especially since this post basically ignores what was learned about Saturn itself!) Nearly 4,000 papers have been published using data from the spacecraft, with more yet to come. It will wind down though— as I write this, the final photos have already been taken so the spacecraft can prioritize more easily streamed data, like individual measurements, in its final moments above Saturn. For our next look at Saturn and its moons, we may have a wait on our hands. New missions to Saturn are still in early planning stages at best, but hopefully running out of interplanetary postcards from Cassini will help spark demand for further exploration, just as the Voyager 1 mission sparked ideas for Cassini itself. After 13 years of amazing exploration, we’ve seen too much to never visit again.


My kids asked: Why are you crying, Daddy?

It’s hard to explain, but this feels much more intense than when MESSENGER was crashed into Mercury, or even when Rosetta was permanently parked on Comet 67P. The fact that Cassini has been in space for over half my life, and my children’s entire lives, has definitely made it seem like a significant change in the world, er, solar system. Saying goodbye sucks. The fact that many of the reports on Cassini’s Grand Finale mission are framed as tear-jerking, heroic sacrifices certainly doesn’t help. It certainly didn’t help my kids, who both decided to start crying when hearing about exactly how Cassini would break up, with my four-year-old repeatedly asking “but why are they breaking the satellite?!”

Beyond that, reading about the success of this product of cooperation and curiosity is really heartening, and it’s always good to have examples of humanity being awesome. (And make no mistake— this has been awesome.) However, having no plan for a return yet makes me very nervous. It’s not that I have a line of research I need investigated or investments in aerospace, but that I want to know that our society will still invest in broadening our horizons, simply as an affirmation of our values. I do take some solace in the fact that Cassini was almost canceled, and yet has beat expectations right and left, so I have to believe that I’ll get to see better close-ups of Enceladus before too long. In the mean time, it’s probably time to check in with Juno

Source: Cassini's Grand Tour by Nadia Drake and Brian T. Jacobs, National Geographic

On September 12th, 2017 we learned about

DNA test defies long-held assumptions by revealing that a decorated Viking warrior was, in fact, female

It’s weird when a fantasy series for kids ends up beating actual archaeologists to a historical fact. As it turns out though, thanks to characters like Astrid in the How to Train Your Dragon series, my kids are apparently more comfortable with the notion of a female Viking warrior than most scholars have been for the past 137 years. A grave in Birka, Sweden was discovered with a considerable amount of equipment suitable for a high-ranking warrior, but nobody even really considered the idea that this warrior was a woman until this year, when genetic testing firmly established her XX chromosomes.

The grave in question is known as BJ581, and is somewhat famous as an example of a successful warrior’s grave. In addition to the human skeleton, the grave also contained the bodies of a male and female horse, a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and a board game. Many of these items have since been found to be representative of warrior burial practices in the Middle Ages, but the board game stands out. The chess-like game is thought to be a sign that this particular warrior was able, and probably expected, to have a mastery of strategy and tactics, quite likely as a commander on the battlefield. The conclusion is therefore that the occupant of grave BJ581 wasn’t not only a fighter, but a skilled and accomplished one at that.

Weapons aren’t for women?

This same collection of grave goods has long been used as evidence that this warrior was male, because people were used to that idea, more or less. Researchers from the 1880s onward have essentially assumed that anyone able to wield a weapon must be male, most likely because of researchers’ own cultural standards. In most of the studies of this grave, there was little investigation into the skeleton’s sex because it was considered a foregone conclusion. Only recently did Anna Kjellström actually investigate the sex of the body, a task made easier with modern DNA analysis. In addition to the discovery of two X chromosomes, isotope samples from the skeleton’s tooth root and upper arm also revealed that this woman had probably moved to Birka from elsewhere somewhere between ages four and nine.

As definitive as the chromosomes are in this case, there’s still push-back in the academic community to accept this correction. In some cases, people point to the idea that women may have been buried with weapons that were heirlooms, or for ceremonial purposes. Women may have been buried alongside male warriors and their weapons. People have even wanted to rewrite the meaning of the game pieces, suggesting that maybe this longstanding sign of tactical prowess was actually, after 100 years of agreement, included because the deceased might have enjoyed playing games. This is all despite other historical records pointing women’s martial abilities in Viking societies, even beyond kids’ movies and cartoons.

Accepting female fighters

The warrior from grave BJ581 isn’t the first woman to face this kind of resistance. The most famous example is probably the Scythian women more commonly known as Amazons. Famous even in their own time, myths and exaggerations created some doubt about if these warriors really did fight bows and arrows, spears and swords from horseback as written and depicted in contemporaneous artwork. Today we have the physical evidence, including genetic testing, to confirm many of these legends, and it seems that the reputation of female Viking warriors may be on a similar track. With this new knowledge from Birka, people are now wondering how many other Viking women have been misidentified in other graves, and further tests should help settle some doubts about who exactly was fighting in Viking armies.


My third grader asked: Women have smaller bones than men?

Part of what sparked the interest in testing this warrior’s skeleton’s DNA was that the bones were proportionally a bit slighter than one might expect for a male. Hips and shoulders are usually more obvious hints at a skeleton’s sex, but studies have also found that males are more likely to have slightly thicker bones, such as around the tibia.

Source: First Female Viking Warrior Proved Through DNA by Kristina Killgrove, Forbes

On August 20th, 2017 we learned about

Ancient Romans special regard for eating jar-raised rodents

For all of the foodie-themed photos people share today, the world somehow lacks gratuitous shots of dormice being served for lunch. This seems like a missed opportunity, because edible dormice were one of the original foods to brag about, with scholars and elites writing down details about how the rodents were served in lieu of selfies and filtered photos. Like the particular interests of gourmands today, this interest wasn’t because edible dormice were a staple of the ancient Roman diet, or because they were necessarily that much tastier than any other roasted mammal. Serving up dormice was a way for hosts to dazzle their guests without making a huge investment in the process.

From pot to plate

A serving of edible dormouse (Glis glis) might include honey, poppy-seeds, pepper and bits of pork. The layered flavors alone would have been impressive to a Roman audience, as more modest meals would have been heavy on salted meat or fish, as the salt was a critical preservative for less-than-fresh foods. Dormice, on the other hand, didn’t need the space or resources a pig did, and they could be raised in a villa without much fuss. The animal was placed in a ceramic pot called a gliarium, where it was fed and watered until it was ready to be eaten. With small air holes and just enough room to move around, a dormouse didn’t have much to do besides sleep and fatten up.

Once it was time to eat, the fact that dormice weren’t actually difficult to raise didn’t seem to matter much. They were apparently valued enough that supplying them could be a profitable enterprise, but not really enough to amount to more than an appetizer. Like exotic foods of today, people made notes about eating a dormouse, particularly its size as testament to the host’s wealth, but their relative scarcity clearly helped make them more intriguing than your average squirrel or rat.

Dormice in decline

Dormice aren’t on many menus anymore, but their may still be in trouble. Hazel dormice (Muscardinus avellanarius) in England are in decline, with populations dropping 70 percent in 20 years. As their absence on Instagram proves, this decline isn’t due people making them into fancy appetizers again, but larger environmental problems. Habitat loss, climate change and local woodland management are all suspected to play a role in shrinking dormouse populations in England.

Source: Dormice, ostrich meat and fresh fish: the surprising foods eaten in ancient Rome by Emma Mason, History Extra

On August 16th, 2017 we learned about

Reasons we regard Route 66 as a historic roadway

This summer, my third-grader went on a road trip with her grandmother and cousin to the Grand Canyon. During the hours of driving, the kids saw more and more signs not for the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest or Meteor Crater, but for some mysterious entity known as Historic Route 66. It seemed to be all around them, with stretches of roadways and stores all claiming some kind of connection to whatever this 66 thing was. Hearing it was the name of a road helped a little bit, but with no yellow bricks, roadside bells or anything relating to 66, the significance of Route 66 is easy to miss, especially today.

A very particular path

The first major roadway to stretch across the continental United States was the Lincoln Highway. The road opened in 1913, enabling a relatively quick drive from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. One road was obviously not going to be enough to satisfy the growing car and truck traffic in the United States, and legislation was introduced in 1916 to build comprehensive highway system across the country. It took ten years for those plans to come to fruition, and in 1926 Route 66 opened as one of the first new roads to allow more convenient travel from the Midwest to the west coast.

The convenience of Route 66 was a carefully nuanced balance though. On one hand, by heading southwest from Chicago across largely flat territory, cargo trucks had an easier route to California than the sometimes snowy Lincoln Highway could provide. On the other hand, the road was purposely not a straight shot to the Pacific Ocean. Planners wanted the road to meander a bit, allowing it to link hundreds of small communities that had no other major roadways to get to bigger cities. Farmers thus had an easier time transporting their goods, boosting many small economies all along the route.

From “The Mother Road” to roadside attractions

Route 66 took on some unintended significance early on as well. Laborers were employed during the Great Depression to help pave sections of road. The Dust Bowl in Oklahoma sent as many as 210,000 people to California, many of which traveled on Route 66. This significance was memorialized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, marking Route 66 as “The Mother Road” in people’s minds even if they’d never driven on it themselves. Finally, as World War II loomed on the horizon, Dwight D. Eisenhower was impressed with the utility of this kind of reliable infrastructure from a military perspective, an idea he would eventually carry with him to the White House.

After World War II, Route 66 was reborn again. Instead of a necessary path for commerce, migration or commerce, tourists started flocking to the American southwest. Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Route 66” was nearly an ad jingle for tourism throughout the Chicago to Los Angeles corridor, and many businesses started directly catering to these travelers’ interests. Motels grew out of auto camps, diners and gas stations proliferated, and many odd roadside attractions were designed to catch people’s eye as much as the natural landscape could. Many of these sights are still around, now with some historical significance layered on top of their already striking appearances.

Facing the four-lane future

As my third-grader found out though, its possible to miss some of this if you don’t know what you’re looking for. This is partly due to the inevitable physical decline of the actual roadway along Route 66, spurred by it’s obsolescence as an arterial route. In 1956, then President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, kicking off construction of a huge network of major highways. Unlike the meandering path of Route 66, highways like I-40 were somewhat modeled after Germany’s autobahn so that travel could be safe and efficient at higher speeds. Rather than stop in each town along the way, highways now let people zip from one destination to the next with minimal interactions along the way.

It took some time, but in 1970 four-lane roads finally allowed travelers to “skip” any portion of the original Route 66. Nobody is about to argue that Route 66 can compete on the grounds of efficiency, but there are efforts to preserve the experience, particularly the post-war tourism, as a cultural milestone in America.

Source: The History of Route 66, National Historic Route 66

On July 26th, 2017 we learned about

Learning about train wheels through the lens of Thomas the Tank engine

We all pretty much “get” wheels, right? From the time we’re babies, we see wheeled objects rolling around us on a regular basis, and it’s not long before the functionality of a wheel and axle can be taken for granted as just another part of almost every vehicle out there. So when my four-year-old recently looked up from his heap of toy trains and wooden track to ask about a particular wheel on a particular train, I had to admit that I really didn’t have an answer. The train in question is known to Thomas the Tank Engine fans as “Emily,” and she stands out among her peers with an oversized wheel each side of her boiler, rather than the more common set of small wheels under the locomotive. Fortunately, behind the expressive faces and somewhat snarky attitudes found on Thomas characters, there is some factual basis for many of the engines, and in this case Emily’s giant wheel does indeed have an explanation.

Which wheels provide power?

To make sense of how this character’s design connects with real life engineering, it’s helpful to embrace your inner four-year-old and familiarize yourself with how train wheels work. Locomotives generally have a battery of wheels, but like a two-wheel drive car, only a few wheels are actually being driven by the engine, appropriately called the driving wheels. The other wheels are there to distribute the weight of the locomotive, and stabilize it as it moves down the track. Wheels in front of the drive wheels are the “leading truck” and those behind the drive wheels are the “trailing truck.” Drive wheels could then be coupled together with the coupling rods you often see on the outside of train wheels, joining them together to share and distribute the power from the engine.

Emily’s enormous wheel

So where does that leave our giant mystery wheel on Emily? Emily appears to be based on a class of steam locomotive called a Great Northern Railway (GNR) No. 1 Stirling Single. The important bit of all that is the “Single,” as it refers to the single, gigantic drive wheel on the side of the locomotive, which received all the power from the engine via a large piston on the outside of the wheel. This design was put into service in 1870, and was a way to balance concerns about speed versus stress on the axle. The record-holding 96-inch wheel could move the train along at a good speed while not needing to rotate as fast as a small wheel would. The catch is that a large drive wheel is slower to accelerate, and only goes fast once it’s had time to get moving. These factors made for a train well-suited for express trips between York and London, generally traveling around 50 miles per hour.

Gordon goes faster

At this point, Thomas the Tank Engine fans might be pointing out that Emily is not in charge of the express trains, as that’s Gordon’s job. Conveniently, Gordon is also based on a real locomotive, the London and North Eastern Railway Gresley A1. These locomotives were first built in 1922, and had six drive wheels to get them moving. They were heavy but powerful, and engineering improvements would eventually get them up to 108 miles per hour over short distances. It’s not clear on my son’s toys, but the drive wheels on this locomotive were all 72 inches in diameter, making them only slightly smaller than what was found on a Stirling Single. The wheels just have a harder time standing out when proportioned on a 70-foot-long locomotive.

Thomas’ torque

While Thomas himself was never referred to as being especially huge or fast, it’s worth noting the utility of this cheeky little engine as well. Thomas was based on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s A1 Class locomotive, often referred to as “Terriers.” These tank engines were often used to shunt cars around freight yards, and had excellent acceleration thanks to their six smaller drive wheels. When not using their torque to push other cars, they were used on branch lines since they could get up to speed quickly between stations, completing routes on tight timetables, just like in the children’s books.

The accuracy of these trains isn’t an accident, as The Railway Series was created by a family of train enthusiasts. Wibert Vere Awdry worked primarily as a clergyman, but he also worked for years on England’s Steam Railway Heritage. Christopher Awdry, the son who Wilbert invented Thomas for, also worked with trains, volunteering on the Talyllyn Railway in Whales between writing more Thomas stories. I don’t recall any stories about Emily winning long-distance races, but clearly there was an appreciation for engineering got these engines moving.

Source: Steam Engine Wheel Arrangements, H2G2

On July 13th, 2017 we learned about

Searching for the start of teeter-totters, tilt boards and seesaws

My four-year-old is currently a big fan of the seesaw. Or is it the teetter-totter? The tilt board? There are many names for this piece of playground equipment, all of which refer to what’s essentially a lever. Levers as machines let us do a lot of otherwise difficult work, although in the case of most playgrounds, the perfectly symmetrical arrangement of a seesaw actually makes things a bit tricky for a large adult and a small child. I do extra work to avoid launching my child thanks to our equal distance from the fulcrum, although there’s a chance that bit of physics is what got seesaws started in the first place.

Korean catapult

With something as fundamental as a lever, it’s not easy to pin down the first time anyone decided they were fun to sit on. One line of thinking connects modern seesaws to 널뛰기, or neolttwigi, a device from Korea that dates back at least a few hundred years. A neolttwigi is like a low seesaw intended to launch someone in the air. One person jumps onto the empty side to boost their playmate straight up. The story is that this device was first developed so that young women could boost each other high enough to see over the walls surrounding their homes, although since then acrobatics and props like jump-ropes have been added to the mix.

Teetering, tilting and trembling

The various names for a seesaw may hold clues as well. Americans supposedly prefer the term “teeter-totter,” although those terms existed separately before being brought to the playground. Teeter is related to titter, which probably comes from an Old Norse word titra, which meant “to shake, shiver, totter or tremble,” which seems fairly appropriate. However, those definitions are fairly broad, which doesn’t help describe the exact device in question. French terms like balançoire only mean to balance, although the theory that seesaw is a bastardization of ci-ça (see-saw), which means “this-that” is at least more playful.

Syncing saws

The most specific connections are based around the name seesaw and how it intersects with hard labor. Before engines sped everything up, sawyers were people who sawed logs and trees. For bigger jobs, two men would hold handles on either side of a large saw, lunging back and forth in an even rhythm to efficiently cut through the wood. Another variation was the pit-saw, where one sawyer was elevated above the other, sawing down at an angle. In either case, the work went better if the back-and-forth motion remained in sync, and so sawyers would sing or chant to coordinate their movement.

These songs introduced the term “see-saw” not for a specific meaning as much for rhythm. They turn up in print in the 1630s with phrases like “see-saw-sack a down” and eventually “See Saw, sacaradown, / Which is the way to London town?” in 1685. Playing on levers probably predates these chants, but the name seesaw made it to the playground by 1704. Kids may have been pretending to be sawyers, chanting along as they rocked up-and-down. While we’re not as familiar with two-man saws today, at the time it was probably a very descriptive term, especially compared to “equidistant class one lever.”

Source: See-saw by Michael Quinion, World Wide Words

On June 28th, 2017 we learned about

A brief history of ships sharing statements by hoisting and waving signal flags

Even though we like to romantically think of the ocean as a serene, relaxing place, it’s actually pretty noisy. Between the wind and waves, anyone talking on the deck of a ship is competing with around 85 decibels of splashing and spraying, which is close to the equivalent of a standing 100 feet away from a 45-mile-per-hour diesel locomotive. You could probably raise your voice enough to talk to someone next to you, but since Ancient Greece people have been trying to come up with ways to communicate between different ships at sea. This was often to coordinate military action, but today includes a variety of statements that might need sharing over moderate distances when speaking isn’t an option.

Hoisting preset signals

Sound can travel pretty far through the air, but from the deck of a ship it can’t really compete with light. To compromise, ancient naval commanders would hoist special flags above their ships that signaled to others that it was time to come over and speak face to face. This obviously has some scheduling limitations, and so people tried putting more information into the flags themselves. Different colors, shapes and positioning was used to build up a vocabulary of commands that could be posted so that other ships could view them from larger distances, whenever their view was clear.

Eventually the details of reading these flags evolved into more elaborate codes, complete with numbers, letters and ways to make substitutions if your available flags didn’t include two copies of a certain signal. Using what amounted to three sets of flags, a ship could basically broadcast around 1,000 different signals. In many systems, any message that didn’t have a dedicated flag combination could just be spelled out, letter by letter. There have been many revisions of these systems, some peaking at 70,000 possible signals, but today things have been simplified a bit. The current International Maritime signal-flag vocabulary can still use combinations of flags, but many of the most commonly used messages can be shared as a single flag for convenience. These include important messages like “I have a doctor on board,” or “I am taking on or discharging explosives.”

Sharing with semaphore

Like all forms of technology, there’s never been a single standard for flag-based communication. In the seventeenth century, Robert Hooke started designing the precursor to semaphore flags, which didn’t actually involve the ocean at all. Semaphore towers were tall buildings set as far as 150 miles apart, each with a pivoting crossbar on top. Each end of the crossbar was fitted with an extension that could be arranged to make the entire shape resemble, a line, an “S”, an “L”, or more. Arranging the angles of these bars allowed for 196 distinct positions, each corresponding to a character that could be seen from a great distance. The system allowed for thousands of signals to be sent faster than a horse could deliver a message.

The towers were successful for many years, even delaying the initial adoption of telegraph wires in France. However, they found a more permanent home on board ships, where the crossbars and beams could be replaced by a human holding two red and yellow flags. By adopting different poses with one’s arms, a message could be sent fairly quickly, although it needed to be seen at the right moment, since nobody wanted to be standing on deck waving flags all day long.

Flags, lights and voices

Flags still have their place on ships today, but they do face a lot of competition. Flashing lights signaling Morse code were one earlier alternative to flags, with the big advantage of being visible at night, and maybe even in poor weather conditions like rain. From a military standpoint, radio transmissions are superior to all of the above, since flags and light beacons are not only visible to your own crews, but to nearby enemies as well. Codes could be used to make things more opaque, but being able to communicate directly with your voice is now a much faster, detailed way to say “hi” when out on the water.

Source: Signaling at Sea by Joseph McMillan, Sea Flags