SHEATH CONTAINING FULLY EQUIPPED OCEAN LINER
February 28, 2012 1:13 PM   Subscribe

"Historians have long debated what could have been done differently to prevent that tragedy, and what still could be done to keep such a tragedy from repeating on future expeditions. In 1913, a Swiss inventor proposed a solution to the problem. Naturally, it involved giant mechanical mosquitoes."

Lagniappe: The Mammoth Eye of Mars
posted by brundlefly (19 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's a shame good old common sense like that is now in such short supply.
posted by yoink at 1:34 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. We could have turned the Great War into an episode of Robot Wars, and have been done with it in half an hour!
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:40 PM on February 28, 2012


Great links. It's interesting just how open-minded people used to be about the technology of the future. It's almost as if being unconstrained by mere facts pushed writers' imaginations even further out into the unknown. They dreamt about Martians, rocket backpacks, strange Leviathans hidden deep under the sea, atomic jet cars pinging the skies, meals in a pill, etc. Nowadays, our imaginations go about as far as current technology with better specs, or vague, hand-wavy religious stuff about singularities and such.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:48 PM on February 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Thanks for that bit of perspective, Blazecock. Compared to uploading one's consciousness to a computer, a mechanical mosquito that drills into the Earth's mantle while carrying a fully equiped ocean liner seems fairly straightforward.
posted by idiopath at 2:29 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I used to design stuff like that too. In the Fourth Grade. Mine were mostly computer consoles with RADAR dishes & missile launchers hanging off them as well as dedicated buttons for a variety of useful functions which I'll leave to your imagination, but if I was a bit more artistically inclined I'm sure I'd have done up a very nice Giant Robot Mosquito.

I really like the Director General's Offices, Airplane Landing Station & Sheath Containing Fully Equipped Ocean Liner. Nice touches.
posted by scalefree at 2:49 PM on February 28, 2012


It's interesting just how open-minded people used to be about the technology of the future.
I read a bunch of science magazines from the late 19th century recently: the flow of technological wonders that were being invented, discovered and demonstrated every day is truly amazing. People had to be open-minded because everything seemed possible, including giant mechanical mosquitoes.
The text mentions one "Chevalier Pini" as a co-inventor. This was actually the Cavaliere Giuseppe Pino, who was a real inventor and quite a character. This article (from 1904!) describes him as some sort of proto-geek, "fired by the stories of Jules Verne" when he was a kid. Here's another report about him treasure hunting in Vigo Bay using his own patented hydroscope (bottom right picture). He also invented a working "submarine laboratory" and a giant dirigible carrier called the "mareodromo" but I can't find if the latter was actually built.
posted by elgilito at 3:05 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


People had to be open-minded because everything seemed possible, including giant mechanical mosquitoes.

It's almost all fantastic, in the old, magical, awe-filled sense of the word.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:48 PM on February 28, 2012


It's interesting just how open-minded people used to be about the technology of the future.

Submarines, airplanes, helicopters, and military tanks were all envisioned long before they were built. What they all awaited was a power source, and all of those things were realized not long after sufficiently powerful portable engines were available. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a continuous revelation of new modalities, and anything did indeed seem possible, right up to the flattening of entire cities by a single bomb as originally envisioned by H.G. Wells.

What happened is that new engines stopped coming; while the engineering got better nothing involving motion or power generation that has happened since 1945 is fundamentally different from what was known and available in 1945. Verner von Braun was envisioning moon shots while practicing on London, and plans to use nuclear fission for power generation were on the blackboards at Los Alamos before Trinity. Sure we've sharpened the engineering and done all those things bigger and better, but there have been no fundamental improvements such as the movement from steam to internal combustion, or animal power to steam.

Instead the real movement has been in electronics and low power communication and computing. If you want to know what happened to your flying car and jetpack, that's basically it; there's not much more progress to make on chemical fuels, and nuclear power turned out to be far more dangerous and harder to miniaturize than its early proponents were willing to believe.

Instead the world has turned inward, and after two generations got used to spending much of their day sitting passively in front of a glowing screen, the new innovation is that so many sit actively in front of a similar screen interacting with virtual constructs. That is something nobody anticipated because it's only a short leap from horse-drawn buggies to tanks, but it's a very long leap to think that a technology only accessible to governments and multinational businesses will one day fit in your pocket, running off a battery instead of enough electricity to power a small town.

So you basically get two lines of approach, both of which I've committed myself; either you wave your hands and invent some magical violation of known physics that permits higher power projects (or their moral equivalent), or you stick to what's known and stay close to today's baseline. Part of why modern writers aren't more fanciful is that we know too much. We were promised a world in the postwar era that never came, and the one we got was much harder to anticipate from 60 years ago than the world of 50 years ago was from 60 years before that. Nobody wants to look as wrong as those futurists from the 60's do today, unless you're David Brin and you follow the book with a detailed essay about why you took the risk.
posted by localroger at 4:01 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Only small working models of the mechanical mosquitoes have as yet been made by the inventor, but these seem to be as practicable as the paper plans promised.

uh huh.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2012


Why don't I get any phone reception at home?
posted by Splunge at 4:34 PM on February 28, 2012


Only small working models of the mechanical mosquitoes have as yet been made...

Oh, yes. This will not end well.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:58 PM on February 28, 2012


Nowadays, our imaginations go about as far as current technology with better specs, or vague, hand-wavy religious stuff about singularities and such.

I don't think I'd call the SF of yesteryear non-vague or -hand-wavy. If you actually read it, it seems a lot less fact-based than transhumanism.
posted by DU at 5:40 PM on February 28, 2012


Submarines, airplanes, helicopters, and military tanks were all envisioned long before they were built. What they all awaited was a power source, and all of those things were realized not long after sufficiently powerful portable engines were available.

This is a common misconception, because they all required several important inventions before becoming practical.

In the case of airplanes, a first step was a better understanding of airfoils. But even then, a "sufficiently powerful portable engine" was useless without flight control. Please note that Hiram Maxim's steam-powered airplane actually managed to take off (which was not Maxim's intention, as a matter of fact), but its flight ended up in a predictably disastrous manner. Although Lilienthal provided a means of flight control by shifting the center of gravity, this was only practical for relatively light aircraft, and quite risky even then (which led to Lilienthal's demise). The Wright brothers' great contribution was to provide a practical means of 3-axis flight control by moving the center of lift, rather than the center of gravity.

Helicopters were (still are) even trickier to control in flight. Even after light engines became available, early attempts to build helicopters usually failed quite spectacularly. The first breakthrough came with the introduction of the articulated rotor by de la Cierva. Even then, much fine-tuning was still necessary until the first practical helicopters were built by Focke-Wulf and Sikorsky.

Tanks had indeed been postulated a long, long time ago. However, no engine could prevent that a heavily armoured vehicle would bog down in soft ground. Once again, actual combat-worthy tanks only became a possibility in combination with the caterpillar track.

Modern, practical submarines were also the result of a plethora of "small" inventions, including stabilizers, the double hull, the combination of diesel and electric propulsion, the conning tower with periscope, etc...

Technology advances mostly by small, incremental improvements and hard work by many individuals, not by the jumps and leaps often presented in history books.
posted by Skeptic at 2:12 AM on February 29, 2012


Skeptic, helicopters and tanks were first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci. Airplanes were envisioned by everyone who ever saw a bird back to the beginning of time. The time which passed between the invention of the necessary engine and the production of workig prototypes was very brief compared to the time span those things were imagined but not realized.

The engine was the hard part. The rest happened very quickly once power was available.
posted by localroger at 5:37 AM on February 29, 2012


I disagree, localroger. Tanks can also trace their lineage back to the first heavy chariots of the Antiquity. Helicopters at least to the first person who noticed a maple seed's glide. I've seen medieval tapestries showing children playing with hand propellers. Although a big fan of da Vinci, I consider that he's historically been rather overrated as an engineer: most of his designs where neither very original nor particularly realistic.

The point is, "envisioning" a concept is the easy part. Actually making it possible is what requires invention. You could stick the lightest, most powerful engine in Leonardo's helicopter, and it still wouldn't take off (it would, however, possibly turn into the world's fastest carousel, absent any anti-torque rotor). You could stick the same engine in Leonardo's tank, and it would still sink to its axles on anything but the most solid ground.

If the aeroplane and the tank came about relatively quickly after the internal combustion engine, this had more to do with the fact that this was pretty much the Golden Era of mechanical engineering. Indeed, in the case of the Wright brothers, their background as (unpowered) bicycle makers had a lot to do with their understanding of both engines and flight mechanics.

As for the helicopter, their development was actually quite protracted: the first internal combustion engine produced in significant numbers was Lenoir's, in 1860. The first serious helicopter, the Fw 61, first flew in 1936, 76 years later, powered by an engine with less-than-spectacular specs for its time (a mere 160 hp, when the contemporary Wright Twin Cyclone had ten times as much power).
posted by Skeptic at 6:19 AM on February 29, 2012


The reason Leonardo's helicopter and tank were unworkable was that he couldn't test them, and he couldn't test them because there wasn't an engine. I maintain that the engine is the catalyst that made the rest possible, and once the rest was possible it went down pretty swiftly.

The Wright Brothers solved the stability problem (and it had been predicted in the 1890's by someone else that bicyclists would solve it), but before they could solve the stability problem they had to build their own engine.

Tank treads are relatively obvious compared to the problems transitioning from steam to internal combustion.

Workable helicopters were more difficult but arrived because things were tried until Sikorsky figured out something that worked; nothing could be tried until engines were available so experience could be collected. It's not surprising that helicopter engines lagged behind the state of the art considering that they had to not only be light and powerful like other aircraft engines, they had to operate vertically, making their development something of a niche.

this had more to do with the fact that this was pretty much the Golden Era of mechanical engineering

Well yeah, and power sources were the reason for that. It's not just IC engines, either; it's electric power generation and distribution, and mining and drilling technology to support those huge economies of scale. Cheap industrial electricity made cheap aluminum possible, which fed right back into aircraft of all types. It doesn't matter how good your mechanical engineering skills are, you can't build a workable modern jet aircraft without aluminum (or something potentially better like carbon composite). Howard Hughes tried that and it only ever flew once.

And the negative argument is just as important; after WWII, power generation and engine technology both pretty much hit walls. There were some better materials and better engineering of larger scales, but the thing is either of us could get behind the wheel of a car made in 1950 and drive it off, just as someone frozen in carbonite since 1945 could get behind the wheel of a modern car and drive it off. A pilot trained in 1945 could very quickly be brought to speed on a modern aircraft, and vice-versa. There are no flying cars or jetpacks or passenger service to the Moon and electricity is still metered. There have been no disruptive technologies in those areas since WWII, and so our technology of 2012 looks a hell of a lot more like that of 1945 than that of 1945 did like 1880.
posted by localroger at 9:55 AM on February 29, 2012


The reason Leonardo's helicopter and tank were unworkable was that he couldn't test them, and he couldn't test them because there wasn't an engine. I maintain that the engine is the catalyst that made the rest possible, and once the rest was possible it went down pretty swiftly.

Put an engine in Leonardo's tank, and it will still get bogged down. Put some tracks and it may work, even horse-powered.

As for his helicopter, engineering-wise it lies in the "not even wrong" category: the rotor is useless, there is no control, and quite crucially, no way of counteracting the torque of the rotor. It's actually farther from an actual helicopter than a hand propeller toy or a maple seed. No amount of testing that contraption would have brought him closer to an helicopter.

The Wright Brothers solved the stability problem (and it had been predicted in the 1890's by someone else that bicyclists would solve it), but before they could solve the stability problem they had to build their own engine.

As a matter of fact, they solved the control problem before they set out building an engine: they experimented with kites and gliders for years, and only built a powered aircraft once they learnt how to control an airplane and actually got plenty of gliding practice. To learn to glide before attempting powered flight was the most important thing they learnt from Lilienthal, and what set them apart from the likes of Maxim or Ader.

Also, the Wright brothers solved the control problem, not the stability problem (they thought they had solved the stability problem, but missed it by a mile: their Flyer was seriously unstable).

Workable helicopters were more difficult but arrived because things were tried until Sikorsky figured out something that worked; nothing could be tried until engines were available so experience could be collected.

That is, again, wrong. As I pointed out above, the single most important breakthrough for helicopters, in my opinion, was de la Cierva's articulated rotor, and it was made not while developing helicopters, but gyroplanes. While de la Cierva's gyroplanes were powered, there have also been gyroplane gliders.

Cheap industrial electricity made cheap aluminum possible, which fed right back into aircraft of all types.

But engines didn't make electricity that cheap, in fact, which is why most aluminium mills are located close to hydroelectric dams...

It doesn't matter how good your mechanical engineering skills are, you can't build a workable modern jet aircraft without aluminum (or something potentially better like carbon composite).

What about the wooden Heinkel He 162? Or the steel Bristol 188?

Howard Hughes tried that and it only ever flew once.

Actually, Hughes' Spruce Goose was piston-powered...

The period between 1850 and 1950 was the golden age of mechanical engineering for a variety of reasons, most of which fed back into each other. That was my whole point: it wasn't just a matter of getting the right engine.
posted by Skeptic at 10:58 AM on February 29, 2012


Skeptic, you are talking all around my argument. We're not that much in disagreement, but you're just insisting on using a different language.

My argument is that engines and power generation, which are linked in many ways, are necessary precursors without which even initial development on practical problems with other requirements cannot begin. What would have happened if Leonardo had had an engine for his tank doesn't matter; he would have found out it had a problem and then moved to solve the problem he had. It's like that with all the other examples -- few people were working on the problem at all, and those in a vacuum of ideas unilluminated by experience, until the power plant became available. The idea was around for a long time but it was the power plant that made realizing it a goal worth pursuing, leading to all those other advancements necessary to complete the picture.

The Wright brothers knew they had to solve the stablity and power problems. They solved the stability problem by turning it into a control problem, but in those same experiments they identified power and weight requirements and fortunately IC technology was at a point where they could extend it -- a good example of my principle in reverse, but without the IC tech that already existed it's safe to say the Wrights would not have invented the IC engine out of a whole cloth and completed their plane; they would have written the project off as unworkable, and be known today as a couple of fellows who built test gliders which were ahead of their time. Probably their other work would have been forgotten and whoever came after them with an engine would have had to figure it out again.

I realize the Spruce Goose was piston powered, but my point is that it was the size of a modern jet and meant to carry people, for which it was unworkable and uneconomical. The economy of carrying bombs made large less efficient aircraft more useful.

All sorts of things followed the engines and power generation, but without the engines and power generation none of those things would have appeared. That some of the follow-through things made for better engines and bigger power plants muddies the issue, but the bottom line is that without the engines and power nothing else would have happened, just as it didn't happen for hundreds of previous years when people had the ideas but not the power for them.

And the reason today looks more like 1945 than 1945 did like 1880 is precisely because of that; there has been plenty of advancement in electronics and information processing and displays, but not much in power or engines and that's why (to get back on topic) today's science speculation seems more timid than that of the golden age of mechanical engineering. Back then people were building smaller more powerful engines and bigger power plants and using them to do ever more fantastic things every few years. Today we consider it a great advance that cars need oil changes less often and use less gas and protect you better in an accident, but it's still just a car and Grandpa would have immediately recognized it for what it is. Not science fiction.
posted by localroger at 2:45 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I forgot to add: If Orville and Wilbur didn't know that IC engines existed and had a shot at providing the power for an airplane, would they have bothered doing the experiments to establish control of such a craft?
posted by localroger at 3:01 PM on February 29, 2012


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