Monday, February 1, 2016

On the Steam Engine

On the Steam Engine: As one of the greatest innovations in engineering history, the steam engine marked the first practical way of converting heat into mechanical work. Of course, people had been boiling water to generate mechanical motion for thousands of years prior to the 1700s, but no single device had yet standardized the process. In 1712, English inventor Thomas Newcomen built the first usable steam engine. Since Newcomen had a background in ironmongery, he had a vested interest in designing and selling specialized tools to miners. One big problem that miners faced in the early 1700s was excess water (which frequently flooded mine tunnels). Thus, Newcomen's engine became the primary pumping mechanism for getting excess water out of (coal and tin) mines. Unfortunately, Newcomen's engine was not very efficient, which prompted Scottish innovator James Watt (and his English business partner Matthew Boulton) to improve it. By the mid-1770s, Watt had successfully doubled the steam engine's (fuel) efficiency, and became the de facto "godfather" of modern engineering. Because Watt recognized a problem, developed a series of potential solutions, and settled on an effective improvement, he embodied the true essence of what it meant to be an "engineer" (instead of just an inventor).

Friday, January 15, 2016

On Why the Cold War Never Ended

On Why the Cold War Never Ended: Europeans were ecstatic when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and again when East and West Germany unified in 1990. But the birth of the Russian Federation in 1991 did not seem to precipitate the same kind of jubilant response. In general, nobody really knew what the "Russian Federation" signified. It was not until 1993 that something resembling a "constitution" was even in place to govern this newly democratized country. And with dual executive positions (Russia has both a President and a Prime Minister), people became confused over where the political power to govern actually resided. In fact, for the past fifteen years, the President (currently Vladimir Putin) and the Prime Minister (currently Dmitry Medvedev) have essentially swapped positions. With this kind of political back-and-forth (spoils system), many foreign observers continue to remain skeptical, as Russia's executive functions appear not-so-different than that of the Soviet politburo. Yet what's particularly troubling are Russia's recent military advances in the Ukraine and Syria. For if there's one thing Putin understands it's power (he's a realist), and he knows the United States lacks the political will to confront Russian aggression.

Friday, January 1, 2016

On the Erie Canal

On the Erie Canal: From Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie, the Erie Canal originally stretched over 360 miles. Built between 1817 and 1825 at a cost of nearly 7 million dollars, the canal was certainly an impressive feat of modern engineering. Under the leadership of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, the canal contained 36 locks while rising and falling around 600 feet. The canal ended-up approximately 40 feet wide by 4 feet deep, and it was largely hand-dug by Scots-Irish immigrants. Basic facts aside, the canal's ultimate value for New York rested in the idea of opening trade with the Midwest. New York City could effectively send goods up the Hudson River and along the canal to emerging Midwestern cities such as Cleveland and Chicago. Other states, especially Pennsylvania, tried to replicate New York's success by funding canal construction. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania went bankrupt in the 1840s after failing to build any major canals, apart from the Delaware and Lehigh. As a result, Pennsylvania turned to railroads for moving goods to the Midwest. Ultimately, it was the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) which became the nation's most successful passenger-freight railway to date.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Acoustic Metal at Its Best

Acoustic Metal at Its Best: Given that acoustic music gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s as part of the folk genre (Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, etc.), it would seem somewhat ludicrous that such a genre could mesh with metal. Yet in the 1990s and 2000s, nu-metal bands like Godsmack and Korn began to experiment with performing their music acoustically, usually in a live (concert) setting. Part of what was driving these bands to perform acoustically had to do with the immense success of MTV's Unplugged series, which really started with grunge bands such as Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Of course, what's ironic about much of the acoustic movement was that it emerged almost entirely opposed to anything electronic (and yet many of the live performances required electronic amplification). If nothing else, acoustic metal offers its listeners the opportunity to experience a divergent take on whatever they have already come to know and love.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Did New York City Unify in 1898?

Why Did New York City Unify in 1898?: When Robert Van Wyck became NYC's 91st Mayor on January 1st, 1898, he suddenly presided over 3 million people and 300 square miles of territory. At the stroke of midnight on that New Year's Day, NYC consolidated into five boroughs. Prior to 1898, NYC merely consisted of Manhattan and parts of the Bronx. But for decades, Manhattan had been looking to grow its influence over surrounding areas like Brooklyn and Long Island City (Queens). In the 1850s, Albany legislators expanded the NYPD's jurisdiction to include Brooklyn. This act marked the first sociopolitical endeavor to unify NYC. Yet as the second half of the 19th century progressed, each decade saw more sociopolitical attempts at consolidation. In the 1860s and 1870s, bridges across the Harlem and East Rivers started to get built primarily because these rivers sometimes froze in the winter, which halted boat traffic and disrupted trade. By the 1880s and 1890s, it was clear that expanding the city's harbor through consolidation would greatly enhance commercial opportunities in the region. And lastly, when Chicago annexed over 100 square miles in 1889, NYC officials feared that many financial and manufacturing firms might move there to take advantage of the "cheap land."