Monthly Archives: July 2014

Sounds of the city

cornerRegular readers of this blog will know that I spent a relaxing day painting railings a few weeks ago [see post entitled ‘Engineering archaeology‘ on July 23rd, 2014].  A day or so later, I went out with my pail of whitewash to paint the walls of the light-well that the railings protect.  ‘The summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life’ but unlike Tom Sawyer I was not looking for Jim to do my white-washing for me.  I was looking forward to another therapeutic session painting the walls at the front of our house.  It was an interesting standing in the light-well facing the wall, un-noticed by most passers-by.  We live on a city street close to tourist attractions and there is a constant stream of coaches and taxis stopping to drop-off and pick-up tourists. I have written about the noise insulation in our house before [see Noise Transfer on April 13th, 2013] which means that we don’t notice the constant growl of diesel engines outside but I did while I was painting.  However, there were other sounds in the city.  The voices of pedestrians  deep in conversation as they passed by on the pavement just above my head.  I recognised Chinese, French, Italian and English but there were many different languages that I didn’t recognise.  There were young children asking parents questions as they walked down the street.  For a while I could hear cathedral bells.  When there was a pause in the traffic then it was possible to hear the cooing of pigeons, a neighbour’s radio or television and an ever-present idling diesel engine which I discovered was an ice-cream van dispensing a constant trickle of black soot and an occasional ice-cream.  It is curious that as a society we tolerant high levels of noise pollution at tourist attractions, especially ones that are meant to be places of calm and contemplation. Most tourists are, almost by definition, on holiday seeking relaxation and a lowering of stress levels – how much more pleasant would it be to glide to your destination in a silent electric coach or taxi?

We have the technology to provide such a service [see Are electric cars back? on May 28th, 2014]. Yes, it requires some investment by tour operators and taxi firms in hybrid or electric vehicles and by the city council in re-charging facilities. Induction charging stations at tourist attractions would allow vehicles to recharge while dropping off and picking up passengers. The technology is available and has been used by buses in Genoa and Turin for more than a decade.  So a little bit a regulatory pressure and investment from city councils acting together could create a calmer, quieter and cleaner environment for everyone.

Can we look forward to solar-powered ice-cream vans?

Sources: Thank you to Richard for reminding me about Tom Sawyer.

Engineering archaeology

Last week I spent a relaxing day painting the old railings in front of our house. Since I am not a painter and decorator by trade the end result is not perfect but they look much better in shiny black than two-tone rust and matt black.   One of the fleurs de lis on our railings had been knocked off when either we moved in or the previous occupiers moved out.  It’s a way of life being an engineer, so the shape of the failure surface on the broken railing was bugging me while I was painting the rest.  You would expect wrought iron railings to be ductile, i.e. to deform significantly prior to fracture, and to have a high tensile strength.  Wrought iron’s properties are derived from its very low carbon content (less than 0.25%) and the presence of fibrous slag impurities (typically about 2%), which almost make it a composite material.  It was historically used for railings and gates.  However, my broken railing had exhibited almost no deformation prior to fracture, i.e. it was a brittle failure, and the fleur de lis had broken in half on impact with the stone flags.  So on one of the rainy days last week, when I couldn’t paint outside, I did a little bit of historical research and discovered that in the late 1790s and early 1800s, which is when our house was built, cast iron started to be used for railings.  Cast iron has a high carbon content, typically 2 to 4%, and also contains silicon at between 1 and 3% by weight.  Cast iron is brittle, i.e. it shows almost no deformation prior to fracture, so the failure surface tends be to flat and smooth just like in my fleur de lis.

This seems like a nice interdisciplinary, if not everyday, engineering example.  It would be vandalism to go around breaking iron railings in front of old buildings.  So, if you want Everyday Engineering Examples of ductile and brittle behaviour, then visit a junk shop and buy an old china dinner plate and a set of cutlery.  The ceramic of the china plate is brittle and will fracture without deformation – have some fun and break one!  The stainless steel of the fork and spoon is ductile and can be easily bent, i.e. it is easy to introduce large deformation, in this case permanent or plastic deformation, prior to failure.  In fact you will probably have to bend the fork back and forth repeatedly before it will snap with each bending action introducing additional damage.

The more curious will be wondering why some materials are ductile and others brittle.  The answer is associated with their microstructures, which in turn is dependent on their constituents, as hinted above.  However, I am not going to venture into material science to explain the details.  I have probably already given materials scientists enough to complain about because my Everyday Engineering Examples are not directly analogous at the microstructural level to wrought iron and cast iron but they are more fun.


Thunderous applause

2d543f31-6f09-43ba-875c-c2d5d3bd0cebI have had cause to applause enthusiastically on two recent occasions. We went to see ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase’ at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. It was fantastic and we joined in a standing ovation at the end. It’s a beggar’s opera that throughly deserved the rave reviews that it has received. It is full of energy, music, wit and spectacular performances.

The second occasion was my son’s graduation in Durham Cathedral. The programme asked us not to applaud as each graduand’s name was read out and they walked onto to the podium to shake the hand of the Chancellor, Sir Thomas Allen, but to hold our applause until the end. So, the last graduand walked off the podium to thunderous applause. Sir Thomas is an opera singer with a sonorous speaking voice and he gave a theatrical entertaining speech that we applauded enthusiastically and appreciatively. It is the tradition at Durham to applaud the new graduates as they walk down the aisle to leave the Cathedral. It’s a long aisle, there were a lot of graduates and we clapped energetically so that by the time the end of the line reached the door our hands were smarting.

You are right. There has been no mention of engineering, yet. However, here it comes. The heat and stinging sensation in the palms of my hands as the last graduate left the cathedral reminded me briefly of an example from my first year thermodynamics lectures in which I estimated the temperature rise in the skin of the hand from vigorous clapping ten times. This was more an exercise in estimating and problem definition than thermodynamics as you will see from the attached worksheet (clapping_example.pdf), but those skills are as important to an engineer as a knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics. Its also another Everyday Example and the experimental part can be performed at home.

Safety first!

cornerMost of us walk up and down stairs at home without a second thought and often without holding the handrail. It’s a personal choice to hold the handrail or not. However, for some when you are at work it is no longer a personal choice but a health and safety rule. You must hold the handrail and in many organisations you are expected to politely ask visitors to do so. This is justified on the basis that trips/slips and falls are the most common sources of workplace injuries accounting for 40% of serious injuries. For managers it is about managing risk and reducing costs.

Risk is the probability of something happening multiplied by the consequences when it does happen. Many of us subconsciously calculate risk when we make decisions in everyday life. The consequences of the aircraft crashing on the way to your holiday destination is very serious, if not fatal, but the probability is extremely small so that overall the risk is acceptably low. We make lots of risk assessments in our personal life but as soon as an organisation gets involved and feels that it might be liable for the consequences then our freedom of choice is eroded quickly. Hence, the instruction to hold the handrail on the stairs. However, the equation is changed when the cost of reducing the risk involved in an essential or profitable activity is too high or perceived to be so. A simple example would be being free to stand on a platform within half a metre of a passing express train. It would be too expensive and probably impractical to install railings or remove everyone from the platform. However, at least we have platforms and are not allowed to wander around on the track; that would be really dangerous with both a high probability of being hit and fatal consequences as the Liverpool MP William Huskisson found out at the inauguration of the first scheduled passenger train service on September 15, 1830. When the train stopped on the way from Liverpool to Manchester, he got out and walked down the track to the Prime Minister who was in the next carriage to enthuse about the service and he was killed by the train going the other way. There are easier ways to get a street named after you, not to mention a town in Australia!

Source:  BTW – according to this website, the finance is the safest sector in which to work and agriculture the most dangerous sector.

Photo credits: Sarah & CharlesPicture8