Swift Engineering

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 . . . :

  • Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone

    Who Would Believe . . . ? via Wikipedia

    Photo Telephone

  • Wizard Camera
  • Electric Locomotive
  • House on Wheels
  • Flying Submarine
  • Magnetic Silencer
  • Airship
  • Race to the Moon
  • Faster-than-light Drive
  • Robot
  • Electric Rifle
  • Ultrasonic Cycloplane (supersonic airplane)
  • etc.

(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.

Ocean-power Turbines

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!).

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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13 Responses to Swift Engineering

  1. There’s also compressed air storage, and pumped hydro. Clearly none give back all the energy you put in. The increased use of wind and similar tecnologies with less controll over when you get the energy will make better a ways to store energy a big issue for some time.

    Another way to address the issue is to just pay people in California to take the excess energy. The opportunities to displace thermal generation are larger there than in the Northwest.


  2. PiedType says:

    You’d never guess from the way some people talk that we are actually generating too much power in some parts of the country — and with “alternative” sources at that. Maybe instead of drilling more wells in the middle of irreplaceable wilderness, or ruining ground water with fracking operations, we should be stringing more transmission lines and devising better batteries and other storage methods. But then, it’s always about the money, isn’t it?


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      It is about the money of course, Pied, that is always at the base of it. But I have always maintained that a huge part of the energy problem is variability – the fluctuations in both supply and demand. It is my perception that people readily adapt to new conditions if eased into it and given some time, but the changes come so abruptly that there isn't time to plan. Hence all the troubles with the size of cars and, for that matter, the size of the engines in them. When people build houses, for example, few want to wait ten years to get their investment back for, say, energy-efficient windows, but if they can recoup it in two or three, it makes a big difference. Government planning is the same, which is why, IMO, we have no national energy plan for the future. The government's time horizon seems to be 4 years for some reason. 🙄


  3. Very interesting, Jim. My first question was, why couldn’t the excess energy be spread throughout the electrical grid and sold to other utilities? Is that even possible over long distances?

    I read somewhere recently that although Bell would not recognize the amazing communications network today, Edison would recognize the electrical grid. Are there any ideas on other ways of transmitting electricity other than through power lines?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      All I know, Duane, is that there is in fact a very active energy market for electricity among the interconnected grids in the country. Maybe it can’t respond quickly enough to unpredictable fluctuations caused by weather? – Just speculation on my part – maybe someone knowledgeable will chime in on the question. As for the grid and Edison, I read the same thing. The electrical power grid may be the most antiquated part of all our infrastructure and the part most vulnerable to terrorism, not to mention the vagaries of Mother Nature. Gee, why doesn’t someone propose to do something about that, I wonder? 🙄


      • John Erickson says:

        A large part of the problem is … guess what? … cost. You can send electricity over distance as microwaves – there are several propositions for generating vast quantities of electrical energy from space-based photo-voltaic cells, then “beaming” it down to the surface for conversion back to electricity. Other than the obvious doomsday scenario of satellite tracking drifting and cooking several dozen square miles worth of countryside (OOPS! 😀 ), converting microwaves back and forth to electricity is more expensive than just using the existing infrastructure. (I doubt the cost comparison holds up when you consider storm damage, but companies have a nasty habit of ignoring “acts of nature”, even if they occur EVERY year!)
        On a different part, I’ve always wondered why houses don’t have “thermal capacitors”. When it’s 90 here, that’s a heck of a lot of heat energy we could use for heat when it’s 20 outside. But again, short-term cost versus long-term value. Sigh.


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          On the thermal capacitors, I agree. But, that is what they are talking about in the NY Times article, John. The water heater and the ceramic heat storage are just that kind of thing. But, as you say, the problem is the one-time capital investment and the long-term payoff. Alas, we are not a farsighted species. As for the microwave thing, very dicey. They’ve been trying ever since Nicola Tesla. Maybe someday, but not now.


  4. In other words when the price of energy becomes negative, and it did in the off peak hours in the northwest during much of the spring run-off in 2011. There’s some reluctance to go here on the part of some regional players thought.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I think I understand. What you seem to be describing is a tacit agreement by neighboring grid segments to purchase excess power as it might occur. Makes sense, but I have no idea if it’s practical.


  5. sekanblogger says:

    The problem, simply put, and as Jim says, is infrastructure.

    Jim, we do have some things in common. I spent decades doing machine tool design, and several years engineering industrial burners for boilers. I enjoyed mechanical design. Electrical, not so much.

    If you’re ever near Muskogee, be sure to see this:
    That’s the museum page, go to the main page for history.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, Tracy, but no thanks. I can take a holographic mental tour of that boat anytime I want – I only have to close my eyes. Sometimes such tours come in my sleep, whether I want them or not, such was the intensity and completeness of submarine training. My first submarine was very similar to Batfish. But, thanks for the thought.


  6. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    The technology for creating energy is well known. Wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal etc. are all “clean” energy production with disposal of nuclear waste a political issue but not technical one. And then of course there is the old reliable “burning” to create energy. Everyone knows how to do all that and in the future Hydrogen power (the univeral source of energy) and fusion power are to be expected.

    It is the STORAGE of energy that is the big technical problem today. Create energy, then put it in a “bank” for later use, just like we do with money so to speak. Technology is relatively infantile in that approach to energy distribution and our current and outdated “grid” is but one example.

    Technically, all we really know to do today is to “store” energy in batteries and capacitors, devices used for energy storage since electromagnatism was first discovered. To be commerically useful such “old” devices must be HUGE and cooling them requires all sorts of “stuff” like cryogenics.

    Consider John’s thoughts above about “micro wave” TRANSMISSION of energy. Put a HUGE series of capacitors in SPACE, let space “cool them”. Sort of a “beam it up, Scotty” then “beam it back down” when we need it.

    How about some capacitors or better yet a really NEW energy storage technology on the Moon. No snail darters or desert turtles up there to worry about as far as I know. But give the EPA a chance and they will probably figure out why not to “contaminate” the Moon!!



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