Monday, 26 September 2011

Can the Camm

This man:

Contributed to the design of this:

The Hawker P1127, prototype for the Harrier jump jet, the AV-8B derivatives of which were still being manufactured in 2003, and remain in service.

Camm also designed the RAF's first monoplane, the Hawker Hurricane. Not bad for a career...


  1. You've just reminded me of a nice little story which pertains to both this and your previous post, "50 Years (Redux)". Disclaimer, it is almost certainly historically wholly inaccurate, but might be a fun read. Onwards then:

    The story tells about how Roman chariot affected the design of the Space Shuttle. It begins way back in the IInd half of the first century AD, with Julius Caesar setting foot in what is going to be called Britannia from then on. Along with Caesar's centuriƦ came, of course, all the heavy industry, out to grab what's up for grabs, primarily the rich metal reserves.

    Now, one of the things that happen to be very handy when you're mining are carts. Roman carts were pulled by horses, and often shared the road with chariots. Chariots had a specific axle length which would, if a road was traversed often enough, leave a pair of grooves in the earth. The cart's axle length therefore needed to match that of a chariot simply to avoid getting one pair of wheels stuck in a single groove. (Even ancient Greece knew about such "wagonways", i.e. grooves or "nega-rails" if you will.)

    Fast-forward about 1¾ millenia: we still have carts, but people came up with this brilliant idea of setting rails up on the ground instead of carving them into (often unsuitable) terrain. Brilliant, but how far apart shall we place these "rails"? Why, we should keep our carts, so let's use the axle length of a cart as a measure! All good and fine; we have the basic width, now we can design trains for speed and balance, and if we have to tunnel through a mountain, we know just how wide the tunnel needs to be.

    If your suspension of disbelief still serves, there's just one small step to go from here. We merely need to cross the Atlantic and colonize America, bringing our carts and designs and standards along. As for the Space Shuttle, one of its design considerations was that the individual parts manufactured by separate contractors needed to be shipped via cargo trains to the assembly point. Cargo trains would be passing through tunnels, so the cap on the width of a, say, fuel tank was ultimately set by none other that the minimum width of a tunnel it must go through, a measurement that depended on the original axle length... of the ancient chariot.

    Q.E.D., says the story.

    If this little make-believe got you to chuckle, then it has already justified itself. Still, hard to believe as it is, there's some truth to it: once there's a good enough way to do things, it's harder to replace it with something merely "better". This "old way" tends to propagate and even win extra favors for its aged sheen: the most expensive watches you can buy today are analog ones, while the digital watches, for all their precision and hassle-free use, still remain but a "pretty neat idea".

  2. has a go at this. Their take is that we wear clothes broadly similar to mediaeval clothes not because we are in thrall to ancient tailors but because we are broadly the same size and shape. Similarly, 18thC roads and carts weren't the size they were because of the Romans, but because people still used a couple of horses and basic engineering meant that axles were a similar size. When trains came along, people at first put road carriage-type carriage on the tracks. Even so, several different gauges were in play, even in the US and the UK.

    Usually it's the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that are specifically mentioned as needing to be narrow in order to fit through tunnels, as in the snopes example. But historically there was no real problem with items being bigger, such as earlier Saturn V components: the bits were designed as needed and the logistics, in the Saturn V first stage example, were then managed to carry them, say by barge.

    I doubt the shuttle designers contracted Morton Thiokol to build the SRBs, then found there was a small railway tunnel, and then decided to design or re-design the whole shuttle system around that instead of making a bigger tunnel/contracting another company/sending the components by Super Guppy and so on.

  3. Very valid, Narmitaj, thanks for elucidating exactly how the story fails in its purported historical accuracy.

  4. I think I read somewhere (but now can't track it down, of course) that one of the architects of the Salyut programme started his career making tractors. In Soviet Russia, right job finds you.

  5. One area where early decisions often last centuries is buildings and town-planning. Not always - someone like Ceaucescu can blast massive roads through any number of mediaeval city-centre buildings.

    But I read somewhere that some of the shops on Colchester's high street still have the same floorplan as the original Roman shops 2000 years ago. And London was rebuilt on the old narrow streetplan after the Great Fire of 1666, despite people like Wren thinking it would be an opportunity to start again with wide boulevards.