Tag Archives: engines

Engineering is all about ingenuity

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU

Who was the first engineer?  It’s a tricky question to answer.  Some sources cite Ailnolth, who lived in the second half of the twelfth century and worked on the Tower of London, as one of the first to be called an ‘ingeniator’.  The word comes from the Latin and the Roman writer, Vitruvius, describes master builders as being ingenious or possessing ‘ingenium’.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was perhaps the first person to be appointed as an engineer.  The Duke of Milan appointed him ‘Ingenarius Ducalis’ or Master of Ingenious Devices.

So it would appear that an engineer is ‘a skilful contriver or originator of something’,  which is the third definition in the on-line Oxford Dictionary after ‘a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines or structures’ and ‘a person who controls an engine especially on an aircraft or ship’.  This type of engine, which uses heat to do work, is a relatively recent invention probably by Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen in the early eighteenth century.  Engineers have been contriving, designing and inventing ‘works of public utility’ [quote from my older hard copy Oxford English Dictionary] for many centuries before the heat engine hijacked the terminology.

Why does this matter?  Well, many people have a misconception that engineering is all about engines, the heat kind; and yes, some of us do design, build and maintain engines but very many more engineers contrive, design and invent works of public utility – in the broadest sense of the words, i.e. just about everything ‘invented’ in the world. In other words, engineering is using human ingenuity to produce something useful; preferably something that improves the quality of life – oh, but now we are moving into ethics and I will leave that for another day!

Sources:

Blockley D, Engineering: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Auyang SY, Engineering – an endless frontier, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Little W, Fowler HW & Coulson J, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, C.T. Onions (editor), London: Guild Publishing, 1983.

 

And then we discovered thermodynamics

sunEnergy, matter, space and time came into existence in the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. 10 billion years later biological organisms started to appear. 70,000 years ago one of those organisms, man started to organise in structures, called cultures and history began. For most of history if you wanted something moved then you had to do it yourself or persuade someone else to do it. The agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago and shortly afterwards we realised that if you fed fuel to an animal then it would ‘burn’ it and do work for you. And that’s how it remained for thousands of years – we didn’t know how to convert heat into work or work into heat. The average energy consumption per capita was about 20GJ per year. Then, 200 years ago we discovered how to imitate nature by burning fuel and producing power in the steam engine. We had discovered thermodynamics and our average energy consumption started rising towards 80GJ per year today.

As a consequence, ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ as Kurt Vonnegut wrote. And that’s because nature starts from solar energy and recycles everything and we haven’t learnt how to do either very effectively. But energy or power engineering has been around for less than a blink of eye relatively speaking and we are just learning how to perform a trick nature has been using for billions of years: convert solar radiation into other energy forms. The sun delivers about 340 Watts per square metre to the Earth so we have plenty energy available.

If you would like to know more about energy engineering or thermodynamics and its potential then join the 5000 people who have signed up for the MOOC that I am teaching for five weeks from next Monday.  Listen to me interview Ken Durose, Director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy on the prospects for renewable energy.

Sources:

http://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/03/12/world-energy-consumption-since-1820-in-charts/

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage (Penguin, Random House), 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.