Category Archives: book promotion

Don’t try this at home

Bessemer macho—this is me pretending to be Thomas Hart Benton. He painted guys with their shirts off fooling around with 3,000° molten steel.

You can’t haul hundreds of passengers from one point to another without really strong rails. Wood, or even cast iron, aren’t going to hold up under that weight. Luckily, there was steel. The only drawback: steel was expensive.

Steel is an alloy of two metals. Usually it’s iron and carbon (coke). As you may imagine, iron and carbon need to get really hot before they become molten and mix together. The process was fuel-intensive—you needed a whole lot of coal to heat up the metal. But in 1855 Henry Bessemer figured out that if he pumped air through molten steel, the bits of carbon burned even hotter—so much hotter that the steel turned out harder using less fuel. The Bessemer process allowed steel to be mass-produced for way less money.

Because Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is my second home-town (I lived in Sliberty for 20 years, jaggers), I must celebrate William Kelly who developed the same process as Bessemer at almost the same time (1847). A blast of air dramatically heats the molten pig iron because the impurities burn themselves up more quickly. What’s left is harder steel. The cast-off impurities are called slag.

Cheap, quality steel made Great Britain and the United States leaders in the Industrial Age.

How does coke and coal play into steel making?

Steel Production

Thomas Hart Benton’s epic “America Today” at the Met

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The Great Steam Locomotive Race


It didn’t take long for smart business types to figure out a locomotive that could haul coal or slate might be useful to carry passengers on steel rails. The railway from Stockton and Darlington opened in 1825. The next year work began on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition: who could build the fastest, most powerful locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances? A race between steam locomotives! Thousands of people came out to watch, lining up along the route. Competition was fierce—but at the end of the race, Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Rocket’ was the winner, breaking the previous speed record by clocking 36 miles per hour!

This was the birth of passenger railways. The world became a place anyone—not just traders or explorers—could travel around.

These may give you some of the flavor—

Here’s a juicy slice of instructive kid lit from the Victorian Era—

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Hot and steamy!

George Stephenson is another one of those tinkerers whose genius is improving an existing invention. Like Trevithick, he worked in a coal mine. Stephenson took the steam locomotive to its next level, making it more powerful.

The basic principle of a steam engine is: fire heats water in a boiler; the water turns to steam; the steam expands and creates pressure; the steam escapes into a cylinder to push a piston. The cylinder has 2 openings to let in steam so that the piston is pushed back and forth as steam fills one side and then the other. The piston is attached to a wheel, so the piston’s back-and-forth motion is changed into circular motion.

How to improve that? One way was to run copper pipes from the fire through the boiler so water gets hotter. Then you could mix the smoke from those pipes with the steam exhaust (from the cylinder) in a smoke box. The super-hot smoke and steam want to quickly escape up through a blast pipe (chimney). That in turn pulls more air into the firebox and makes the fire burn hotter. That means more steam, more pressure—so the piston moves faster with more power.

Stephenson designed the cylinders/pistons closer to horizontal, so they lost less energy. He also attached them directly to the driving wheels. Trevithick’s design had pistons that turned great gears that turned the driving wheels. It transferred energy from a piston to a gear to another gear, losing a little energy with each step. Remember how concerned Harrison was with friction between moving parts of a clock?

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Coal-hauling horses finally get a break

Whenever Cornish horses get together they like to sing in close harmony.

I know what you’re thinking: if Watt’s engine could turn a wheel, why not use it to propel a cart or wagon?

Excellent question! I’m glad you asked it. With a steam engine, pumps kept mines clear of water. Much safer for the miners and their animals who worked down there. Wait—animals? Well, yes. As the miners got coal loosened from inside the mine, they’d load it into carts. The carts were pulled by horses. Their wheels rested on 2 rails so the carts wouldn’t topple over as they were pulled up the rough surface of the mine floor.

Eventually, a kind-hearted soul looked at horses struggling to haul big, heavy loads of coal (or tin, or slate) and thought: there has to be a better way to haul coal. Corishman Richard Trevithick is credited for inventing the first steam locomotive. “On February 21, 1804, Trevithick’s pioneering engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles from Penydarren, at a speed of five miles-per-hour, winning the railway’s owner a 500 guinea bet into the bargain.”

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The Age of Steam

Over-simplified drawing of a steam engine. The fire heats the water; water turns into steam, steam expands and enters the chamber; steam forces the piston into the other chamber; piston pushes the beam; beam turns the wheel. The wheel pushes the switch that shuts off first chamber so steam enters the second chamber; piston moves down.

As sailing ships were being designed bigger, speedier and lovelier—two or three tinkerers were fooling around with a way to get water out of coal mines.

Mines are dug to extract valuable minerals. Sometimes the digging will open up a spring and water flows in, flooding the mine. Horses or men worked pumps to empty the mines, but animals and people tire out easily. In 1698 Thomas Savery invented a steam pump to get water out of mines. His invention had limitations (it didn’t work if the mine were too deep) and it had an unhappy tendency to explode.

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented a steam engine that moved a heavy beam which worked a pump. It had limitations as well—his engine needed constantly to be fussed with to keep it cool or hot, which made it inefficient. In other words, it needed lots of energy to make it put out energy.

In 1765, James Watt made some big design changes to Newcomen’s engine which made it efficient. It had a piston which could work a pump by turning a wheel. Elizabeth Palermo Heather Whipps

Mister Midshipman Hornblower

C.S. Forester’s character, the 19th-century British Royal Navy officer Horatio Hornblower excelled at navigation because he was a math whiz. This got him in trouble as a young midshipman when he showed up a big dumb bully who couldn’t figure out how to work a sextant.
A must-read—

The sextant

The sextant is an instrument used to determine latitude and longitude. It was invented by Edmond Halley or John Hadley or Thomas Godfrey based on Isaac Newton’s ideas. You use a sextant to measure how far above the horizon the Sun is at noon (or how high Polaris is at night).

I’ve talked about finding your latitude or longitude by measuring the angle between a line from you to the moon and a line from you to a star. How do you do that?

Sailors have been using a sextant for centuries. Isaac Newton dreamed up the idea, then Edmond Halley built one in 1692. Several refinements were made around 1730, until we finally got the good old sextant you see people using in the movies with wooden ships and guys wearing wigs. A sextant is like an astrolabe—you sight something familiar in the sky, like a star, by lining it up along a sighter or pointer or alidade. Then you mark the alidade’s position on the frame and use that information to find your location.

Instead of an alidade the sextant has a telescope you look through. Then you find both the object (usually the Sun) and its reflection in the mirror. There are 2 mirrors facing each other and smoked lenses so you don’t fry your eyeballs. One mirror is half mirror/half glass so you can see both images at the same time. You bring the image of the Sun down to the horizon by moving the arm on the sextant and—oh, who am I kidding? Do you think I know what I’m talking about? What I need is a video to show how it’s done. Luckily, there are a bunch of them on the ol’ internet. Listen to these guys.

Here’s an in-depth 4-part tutorial covering everything you ever wanted to know about how to use a sextant.:

And a guy who doesn’t own a comb but knows what he’s talking about:

The thing you have to know is: the sextant will give you a precise angle between 2 objects that you can transfer to a chart or map to get your position on Earth.

Look! Look! Here’s a cardboard sextant you can build yourself!

Here’s a plastic sextant—,prmr:3,tpim:CKyp-dn168W22QEQ1N-msv7m0OotGMCbhR4iA1VTRCjg3sL8BTCNyIhA,pdprs:6&utm_medium=tu_image&utm_content=eid-lsjeuxoeqt&utm_campaign=134358029&gclid=CjwKCAjwztL2BRATEiwAvnALcqb-eUHLE4Y_XEM7QpPWFcXOcl2YbghLFCIcLIG1ItYYMc__vQ3_jBoCA14QAvD_BwE

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So long, and thanks for all the longitude

After 19 years of tinkering John Harrison finally worked all the bugs out of his time-piece, the marine chronometer. To prove its reliability, he took it on a voyage from England to Jamaica.

“Harrison conducted a round-trip test at sea from Britain to Jamaica through the Caribbean via the Atlantic from 1761 to 1762. The watch lost only 5.1 seconds in 81 days, reaching the level of accuracy required to receive a £20,000 reward.

But just then a rival named Nevil Maskelyne, the head of the Greenwich Observatory and a member of the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude, was vying to receive the same award for his astronomical theory. Maskelyne refused to recognize Harrison’s success. To Harrison’s chagrin, he was granted only a few thousand pounds.”

Well, how do you like that? This is why Maskelyne is always cast as the villain in this story. Seems like a conflict of interest to be on the Longitude Board if you’re also a competitor for the prize. It would be quite a while before Harrison finally got his reward—and that was only because King George III* stepped in to make the Board pay up.

My pal Kathryn Lasky wrote an award-winning book about John Harrison’s story, The Man Who Made Time Travel:

Kathryn and I worked on Two Bad Pilgrims together.

* George III ruled Great Britain during the American Revolution. He was an enthusiastic friend to the Royal Navy. It was George who decreed that his sailors could toast the king’s health sitting down, because the deck-beams in the wardroom (officers’ dining room) were so low you’d likely crack your head if you stood.

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It’s 2 metals in 1!

This next part is crazy. I don’t know how Harrison dreamed up this idea. I don’t know how it’s even possible. Maybe a reader with experience in welding can help me out.*

Because metal springs are susceptible to temperature changes, which make them less reliable and accurate, Harrison invented the bimetallic strip. It is 2 metals, like steel and brass, welded together.

Did you get that? It’s possible to weld, or fuse, or something, steel and brass now. The watch’s mainspring needs always to be springy. When it’s cold, the spring becomes too stiff. When it’s hot, the spring becomes too loose. Harrison fused two metals together—steel and brass—in a spring. If the steel were too tight, the brass would keep it loose. If the brass were too loose, the steel would tighten it up. This way the spring would keep the same springiness no matter the temperature.

* This weekend I had the pleasure of consulting 2 engineers, my sister’s boyfriend Dave and my nephew Andrew. They tell me with enough heat, two different metals can be fused together. The two metals would be hammered together many times under heat until they were one. Andrew added that it’s only air molecules that keep metals from fusing together in the first place.


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Hot- and cold-running time

After breaking his heart trying to perfect a clock to keep accurate time on the high seas, Harrison refused to give up. He turned instead to perfecting a watch.

No more worrying about pendulums!* Harrison got straight to work on a ship’s timepiece that uses a metal spring and balance wheel. That good ol’ metal spring and balance wheel would do the trick. No problems with a metal spring and balance wheel, no sir.

Well, maybe one small problem. When metal is warm, it expands slightly. When it cools, it contracts. This spring-powered timepiece was expected to be used in both tropical and arctic conditions. The temperature would change the character of the metal, which would make it less reliable, which would make the timepiece less accurate.

Now what?

* Okay, okay, pendula for you Latin nerds.

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