Thursday, September 27, 2012

Man in the Middle

There's a chain of scientists and astronomers, from Copernicus to Newton, who figured out how the Solar System works. Today (September 28th) is the birthday of a guy who frequently gets left out of the chain, namely because he got part of the workings right and another part of it completely wrong. So, let's focus on him a little bit too much now, shall we?

Ismaël Boulliau, or Ismaël Bullialdus as he's called in his writings, was a French guy born in 1605. He was from a Calvinist family, so that meant he didn't have to worry too much about upsetting Papal authorities with new ideas about the heavens. His dad, an amateur astronomer, got young Ismaël interested in the latest theories about orbits and planetary motion.

Despite his Calvinist upbringing, Ismaël converted to Catholicism and became a priest at age 26. Fr. Bullialdus wound up working in the Royal Library in Paris, reading, sorting, and purchasing books for Louis XIII's court. King Louis was big on funding the arts and sciences, so Fr. Bullialdus was a busy guy for library acquisitions.

Ismaël continued the astronomy studies sparked by his father, and due to his position in the upper ranks of the government, became friends with other astronomers and mathematicians such as  Christiaan Huygens, Blaise Pascal, and Pierre Gassendi (all of whom were visitors to the royal court).  These men were on the cutting edge of planetary motion theories, and their correspondence shaped the investigations made by astronomers throughout Europe.

One of the hottest theories about planetary motion was made by a fellow astronomer in Germany at about the same time all these French guys were writing each other. Johannes Kepler figured out that the planets didn't move in circles around the Sun (as the astronomer Copernicus had theorized) but in a path of ellipses, with the Sun located on one focal point of the ellipse. Kepler wasn't sure what force caused the planets to move around the Sun in this manner, but he was pretty certain that the force was inversely proportional to the distance of a planet to the Sun.

Fr. Bullialdus was intrigued, but Kepler's numbers didn't add up. It seemed as though this mysterious force (if it did exist) would operate similar to how light and sound did with distance: namely, that the force would fade not by the inverse of the distance, but by the inverse of the distance, squared. When Bullialdus plugged in the numbers using his own formulas, the motions seemed to work just fine. Fr. Bullialdus published his findings in a book he called Astronomia philolaica, which appeared in 1645.

So, in 1645 Bullialdus had written this book that accurately described the motions of the planets. Unfortunately, he spent the second half of the book refuting the idea that some kind of "force" existed to make the planets go around the Sun. Instead, Ismaël believed the Sun and the planets were rolling around in the sky because of their initial trajectories at the beginning of the Universe. Fr. Bullialdus wrote, "I say that the Sun is moved by its own form around its axis, by which form it was ignited and made light, indeed I say that no kind of motion presses upon the remaining planets." Despite mathematical evidence to the contrary, he refused to apply the clues to discover the laws of gravity.

Thirty-eight years later, Sir Issac Newton would take the clues left by Bullialdus in Astronomia philolaica in order to shape his own book, the Principia Mathematica. Newton noted in the foreword to his book that Bullialdus's math was right on the money. However, Newton (and rival Robert Hooke) both managed to take the next step and specify that gravity was a predictable force in the Universe.

Tough break for Fr. Bullialdus. He retired to Abbey St. Victor, where he lived out his final years as a simple priest. On the plus side, today he's got a crater named after him - - if you have clear skies tonight, the sunlight should just be hitting his crater in the middle of the Sea of Clouds. Easy to spot - it's got a tiny peak in the middle that casts a shadow on lunar mornings.  So, maybe go out and take a look at the Moon tonight, and think of the fellow who had all the pieces, but didn't solve the puzzle.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

It's a Mighty Rough Road from Lynchburg to Danville

I love the past, I love trains, and I love a good, dreadful story. Fortunately for me, this next little tale involves a nasty bit of railroad history that was so famous after it happened, it spawned a folk song.

September 27th marks the 109th anniversary of one of the most awful train wrecks in Virginia history. All the elements of impending doom were easily spotted in hindsight, but the participants failed to notice the obvious perils until they arrived at the accident.

Let's back up a bit. After the Civil War, the economy of the South was ruined for decades. The infrastructure of railroads that had criss-crossed the agrarian terrain had been destroyed by Grant and Sherman as they eviscerated tracks and stations during their military campaigns. Although cities and towns rebuilt quickly, the transportation infrastructure of Dixie had not fully recovered until the first several decades of the Twentieth Century.
One of "Sherman's Neckties" in Georgia, 1864

Chief among these recovering railroad companies was the Richmond & Danville Railroad.  During Reconstruction, the Richmond and Danville System, as its name implies, rebuilt destroyed right-of-ways throughout Virginia and the Carolinas. The R&D Railroad owners didn't match their construction outlays with their operating income, and found themselves flat broke by 1893. They lost their heavily-mortgaged company to Yankee financier J.P. Morgan, who fired the board of directors, bought up a couple of other railroads in Floria and Georgia, and renamed the company the Southern Railway System.

Morgan's new railroad was a powerhouse, with new rolling stock, new locomotives and state-of-the-art engine shops throughout the South. Morgan appointed Sam Spencer as the company's first President. Spencer was a complete train geek, previously serving as the President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, as well as the Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad before working for Morgan as his chief railroad financial analyst. It was said that Spencer could figure the profitability of a railroad down to the price of the last hand brake or railroad tool shed.

The biggest money maker for railroads at the beginning of the Twentieth Century was "fast freight" - - a particular type of scheduled cargo service that could guarantee delivery to cities by a certain date and time without fail. The biggest customer for this service was the United States Post Office. Successful fast freight providers could earn top dollar from mail contracts with the rich, willing federal government. The only requirement was that the mail would always be on time.

One of the most lucrative mail contracts in the South was the delivery route between Washington, DC, and Atlanta. The train consist that Spencer assigned for this run on the Southern Railway was called the Fast Mail,  made up of two postal cars, one express car, and one baggage car. The loads of mail making the 630-mile run would be hauled by the latest in steam technology, the Baldwin Locomotive Works' 4-6-0 "Ten-Wheeler." The Philadelphia-built Baldwin engine was capable of speeds near 90 mph, making it the ideal locomotive for the fast-freight market.
The Baldwin 4-6-0 Ten-Wheeler

Spencer ordered 28 locomotives of this type from the Baldwin Locomotive Works. His goal was to move Southern away from relying on regional cotton and tobacco hauling, and build more diversified traffic across the system. The mail service was the perfect cargo for Spencer's new business plan.

Understandably, train crews were under a lot of pressure to keep to their schedules. The loss of a mail contract due to delayed delivery was unacceptable, and potentially catastrophic to the railroad company.

I guess you can see where all this is leading.

On September 27th, 1903, the Fast Mail was delayed leaving Washington's B&O Station as it headed toward Atlanta. After further delays in Fredericksburg, the train was more than an hour behind schedule as it neared the central Virginia town of Monroe. At Monroe, a new train crew boarded the late train, and prepared to make up time on the road. While Engineer Joseph Broady and two firemen worked up steam on the engine, about a dozen postal clerks continued sorting mail in the express cars.

Before Broady boarded the locomotive, the dispatcher told the engineer that he needed to get back on schedule by the time he reached Spencer, Virginia - - about 166 miles in front of his train. To do so, Broady would need to get the engine running at least 50 mph for the length of the run - - about 12 mph faster than the typical run through the winding, rolling edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To make Spencer on time, Broady was also instructed to continue at speed through Franklin Junction, Virginia, normally a water station stop on the line.

To counteract some of the worst parts of the terrain, the Southern Railway built a series of trestles that connected track grades along the sides of steep hills and valleys. One of these trestles, the 45-foot-tall Stillhouse Trestle, crossed a muddy river at the bottom of a ravine known as the Stillhouse Branch. The trestle was more than a 5% downgrade along its length, and curved sharply on its northern approach. 

The rest was fate and physics.

The Fast Mail locomotive #1102 plunged off the north end of the Stillhouse Trestle, pulling the mail cars with it into the ravine. The engineer, the firemen, the conductor, the flagman, and several of the mail clerks were killed. Seven survivors in the rear cars were severely injured.
The Wreck at Stillhouse Trestle

The Southern Railway blamed Broady for the wreck, failing to heed grade warning and speed restriction signs - - even though witnesses testified that the engineer was acting on orders of the Southern dispatcher. Fortunately (at least in the eyes of the Southern Railway) the federal government retained the Fast Mail service with the railroad, and only fined the company for delays on the mail lost in the ravine.

Baldwin engine #1102 was salvaged from the wreckage, repaired at the Southern shops, and continued in service until 1935. The wreck itself received much newspaper and magazine coverage, due to some of the gory details of the train crew's fate. Engineer Broady's body, for example, was found seared by pressurized steam from the boiler, his one hand grasping the throttle control, while his other hand was wrapped around the whistle's lanyard.

Never to waste good drama, songwriters immediately penned heartfelt ballads about the loss of the Fast Mail train. Rather than using the train's name, they wrote about the mail run by referencing Southern's Fast Mail route number: 97.

Well, they gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
Sayin' "Steve you're way behind time
This is not 38, it's old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time."

Then he turned around and said to his black greasy fireman
"Shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
watch old 97 roll"

But it's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
And from Lima it's on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes
See what a jump he made

He was goin' down the grade makin' 90 miles an hour
When his whistle broke into a scream
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
A scalded to death by the steam

Then the telegram come to Washington station
and this is how it read
Oh that brave engineer that run old 97
He's a layin' in old Danville, dead

So now, all you ladies, you better take a warnin'
from this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin' husband
He may leave you and never return

Although President Sam Spencer managed to keep the mail service contract after the wreck, he unfortunately had a meeting with destiny, too. In  November of 1906, Sam and a few friends were on a hunting trip outside of Lynchburg, Virginia when they decided to sleep in their car for the night. So they parked - - on a railroad siding. Their car was demolished by a freight train that had been switched to the wrong track. I guess all that intimate knowledge of the railroad business didn't include the part about parking on railroad tracks being a bad idea.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard

Nuno Bettencourt was the lyricist and frontman for the 80's rock band, Extreme. He wrote lots of glam metal rock ballads, but achieved his greatest success with an acoustic pop song.

Bettencourt felt that the phrase "I love you" was becoming meaningless. In a 1991 interview with the Albany Herald, he said, "People use it so easily and so lightly that they think you can say that and fix everything, or you can say that and everything's OK. Sometimes you have to do more and you have to show it – there's other ways to say 'I love you.'"  The result was the hit song More Than Words.

True, words can be meaningless if not backed up with actions, but sometimes words spark and inspire enormous actions.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a speech that defined and explained the reasons why America decided to go to the Moon. President John F. Kennedy, speaking to a class of future engineers and scientists at Rice University, stood at a podium in the middle of a football stadium on a hot September morning and summarized the history and mission of American explorers. The scope was huge, covering 50,000 years in the first two minutes of the speech, then continuing through the period from the establishment of the Plymouth Bay Colony by William Bradford, and extending to the investigations of the Moon and the planets beyond which continues a half-century later.

Historians can point to a handful of Presidential addresses that encapsulate a moment in time clearly and succinctly. Abraham Lincoln, penning thoughts about the dedication of a national cemetery, summarized the reasons for the Civil War and its higher purposes in the 262 words that form the Gettysburg Address. Franklin Roosevelt, responding to a surprise attack by an enemy on the other side of the planet, formulated a speech that marked the Pearl Harbor assault as a "day of infamy" forever.

The Rice University speech by President Kennedy is undoubtedly on a par with these other historic addresses. JFK spoke not only to the Rice students, but to America and the world:

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.
The simple idea here is that going to the Moon is nothing new - - Americans have worked on tough projects before, and will do so in the future. Tying the Space Age to the founding of the country explained this new reach to the unknown as a familiar habit for the nation.
 If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.
 Remember, at the time of this speech, the Soviet Union was far ahead of America in manned spaceflight. They had spent more than several days in space - our three manned orbital flights totaled less than 12 hours. The sense of behind-ness rankled the nation.
We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
Kennedy continued the comparison between our conflict with the Soviets on Earth, and the new, unconquered frontier of space:
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation that may  never come again.
The President then put out the Big Questions of the thesis:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
On the trip into Houston - - realizing his audience -- Kennedy penciled in an additional Big Question:
Why does Rice play Texas?
And then he answered those questions with an epic response that will probably be quoted as long as Americans travel into space:
We choose to go to the Moon.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 
 Bettencourt was right that actions are more important than words. But I think, sometimes, the words matter, too.
JFK's podium copy of the Rice Speech, @ the JFK Library
2,503 days after the speech.