I’ve always liked to know how stuff works. As a boy in the 1940’s I gobbled up all the Tom Swift books and avidly followed the latest designs of airplanes and ships coming out of the world war. I was allowed to send off for the latest models – they would come in cardboard, to be punched out and folded into shape. I would put a coin in the nose and they would actually glide!
The writing in the Tom Swift books was a little clunky, but that didn’t register on my radar. The adverb-heavy series (“‘I lost my crutches,’ said Tom lamely”) ran to over 100 volumes. But, the imagination in the stories reflected real advances in engineering and science. Tom dabbled with all manner of new and exciting stuff,
much of which wasn’t invented, or at least perfected, until years later. The titles typically started with, Tom Swift and his . . . :
- Wizard Camera
- Electric Locomotive
- House on Wheels
- Flying Submarine
- Magnetic Silencer
- Race to the Moon
- Faster-than-light Drive
- Electric Rifle
- Ultrasonic Cycloplane (supersonic airplane)
(If you want to see some really, really neat Tom Swift pulp covers, just google “image Tom Swift”.)
It seemed during World War II that new airplane designs came out in a steady stream. And so they did – nothing spurs invention like war. By the end of the war America was flying P-51 mustangs, P-38 Lightnings and B-29 Superfortress bombers, a far cry from the rickety crates we started with. I was unaware of submarines at the time, but the full exploits of American submariners were only well known after the war. It was breath-taking, and I found much interest in reading science fiction, a genre that, by no accident, found its Golden Age coinciding with that epic wartime era.
Many people may not realize just how up-to-date SF was in the 1940’s. Did you know that at least one science fiction story was written about a working nuclear power plant reactor even before the first atomic bomb was exploded? The author later reported that a very suspicious FBI had visited him at the time, but the truth is that the potential for atomic energy had been known since the 1930’s.
I ended up an engineer because of attending the Naval Academy in the late 1950’s. While there are choices for different majors now, we were all engineers at that time. The common degree was a BS in “Engineering”. It was principally Electrical Engineering and the associated math, but with a good military mix thrown in: naval boilers, thermodynamics, navigation, ordnance and gunnery. (The only course choice in the entire curriculum was that of foreign language – there were 6 options for that.) We also had enough English to round us out and enough Naval history to make us fans of the profession.
I recall an interesting series of conversations with my roommates about energy. Why, we speculated, couldn’t the power of waves and tides be captured? There is enormous energy in such. We envisioned the motion of huge floating platforms being mechanically transferred into electricity for the power grid. I find it interesting that such projects are now being implemented – I know there is a project for hydro-turbines off the East Coast near NYC now.
What started me thinking about all this was a New York Times news item about wind power. It turns out that too much power is a problem. Huh? Too much power? Yes, indeed. There are so many wind turbines in the Pacific Northwest now that when a storm rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, it not only cranks up the generation of electricity by turbines, but it also dumps rain behind the dams, rain that must be released through hydroelectric generators. Result, power grid overload.
Why don’t they simply bypass the dam (ahem) turbines? It turns out that there are detrimental environmental effects when the release becomes excessive. Why don’t they just shut off some wind turbines? The owners of the turbines get angry over losing revenue. Nothing is simple, is it? But engineers have come up with a solution that just might be practical – they propose, by using smart, remotely-controlled electronics, to store the excess energy as heat in people’s houses, either in water heaters or in ceramic heat sinks that can be tapped for the house’s heating system. The article makes good reading (Tom exclaimed literally!).