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Subject: ‘Engineering’

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Ariel built motor tricycles and cycles for day-to-day travel

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Transport, Travel on Saturday, 15 March 2014

This edited article about motorcycles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Acetylene headlights on a motor car and a motorcycle
Acetylene headlights on a motor car, a motor tricycle and a bicycle

Most of the early makes of motorcycle achieved fame in the racing world, but some of the largest makers ignored this side of the sporting scene. Ariels were among these – they concentrated on producing machines for the man in the street and demonstrated their merits in trials and attention-catching stunts.

The first Ariel, made in 1898, was a motor tricycle with the engine fitted in front of the back axle under the saddle. Before it could be sold the public had to be convinced that this new fangled idea worked, so Jack Stocks, a cycle racing champion, rode the tricycle from London to Birmingham. Jack Stocks’s famous name was good for advertising – and no doubt his powerful legs were equally useful when the engine needed some assistance up hills!

By 1903 the firm was producing a little 2 ½ hp motorcycle and to prove its merits it was ridden from Land’s End to John o’Groats – a remarkable feat on the terrible roads of the time. From then on Charles Sangster, the head of the firm, kept pace with developments, so that by the time of World War I Ariels had the luxury of a three speed gear box although they retained a belt drive as this helped smooth out the roughness of early engines.

After the war the firm rather daringly experimented with a spring frame but it did not meet with much success – perhaps because the riders of the day had so many other problems that they were not very worried about a few bumps! Motorcycles were only just beginning to be fitted with internal expanding brakes in place of the cycle type which were only just adequate on dry days and hopeless in the wet. Lighting was by acetylene gas generated by allowing water to drip on calcium carbide – a smelly business which produced a light so poor that it enforced slow riding. The early 1920s saw the introduction of proper pillion seats – known as “flapper brackets,” because the short skirted “flappers” of the period sat astride. Previously young ladies had ridden sidesaddle on a cushion strapped to the carrier.

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The new dirt track dare-devils rode the reliable Rudge

Posted in Australia, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes, Transport on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about motor-cycles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Dirt track racing,  picture, image, illustration
Cornering on the dirt track

In the mid-1920s the Rudge Whitworth motorcycle catalogue advertised a rather unusual optional extra. This was the canoe sidecar – a canoe-shaped passenger carrying body which could be detached from the motorcycle and launched on a river!

Such ideas were typical of the factory which was always coming up with new ideas – and a surprising number of them worked; for right from the earliest days the engineers at the Coventry works seemed to have an instinct for doing a job well.

In 1911 the TT races in the Isle of Man were moved to the mountain circuit – so-called because it climbed to nearly 1500 feet going over the shoulder of Snaefell. This climb posed a great problem to the single gear belt driven machines of the day and some of the riders who had entered their Rudges asked the factory if it could produce a variable gear.

The gear ratio of a belt driven machine is fixed by the relative size of the pulley on the engine shaft and that on the rear wheel. As early as 1909 the Zenith firm had introduced its Gradua gear in which a large hand lever opened or closed the flanges of the pulley on the engine shaft, thus varying its effective size. This change in the pulley altered the tension of the belt, and this was compensated for by moving the rear wheel backwards or forwards! Although the idea of shifting the back wheel about while the bike was in motion does not seem very pleasant, the arrangement became quite famous.

The Rudge designers felt that something better was needed and it took them just one week to invent and produce the Rudge Multi gear. As the engine shaft pulley was made smaller the belt rim on the rear wheel was made larger and vice versa so that the belt was kept at a constant tension. There was a clumsy looking arrangement on the rear wheel, and the variation in gearing possible was not very wide, but it gave a considerable advantage over a single geared machine and the Rudge Multi became a great favourite before World War I.

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George Scott was a brilliant motor-cycle designer

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about George Scott first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

In the golden years of motorcycling there was one machine which would cause heads to turn and a knowing grin of recognition to appear on faces even before the bike was in sight. This bike was the Scott. At that time most motorcycles had the heavy thump of the single-cylinder four-stroke engine – but the Scott’s twin-cylinder two-stroke engine produced a sound which has been described by some as a yowl and by others as a “two tone warble like the controlled vibrato of an accomplished contralto.” The Scott was much more than merely a wonderful sound, however – it was a brilliant piece of original engineering.

The first Scott appeared on the market in 1908 after its maker, Alfred Angus Scott, had spent nine years designing it – which was a very long time at a period when most firms built their machines from scratch in a few months. Remember, too, that it was only in 1901 that the Werner brothers in France had brought out the first real motorcycle with an engine built into the cycle frame in place of the bottom bracket. Till then engines had been put in every conceivable position, from above the front wheel to an outrigger behind the back wheel.

Alfred Scott was born in Yorkshire of Scottish ancestry and his character had the originality one would expect from such a combination. While most motorcycles of the time were made by engineering firms which saw the opportunity of an easy profit in a new market, Scott, an ex-public school boy, set out to produce something special.

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Henry Ford invented the most popular machine in history

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Transport on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Henry Ford first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Henry Ford, picture, image, illustration
Henry Ford produced his first hand-built car in 1892 by Robins-Davidson-Howat

In the years between 1891 and 1896, the people of Bagley Avenue, Detroit, U.S.A., had got used to hearing strange noises from the woodshed behind one of the houses. If the light glowed far into the night as it often did, they merely muttered to themselves, “It’s only crazy Ford playing with his mad machine.”

Then at 4 a.m. one spring morning in 1896, Henry Ford impatiently knocked a large hole in one of the walls of the shed, and drove his first car out into the world. Later, he took his wife, Clara, and their baby son, Edsel, for a ride in front of their astonished neighbours, who could hardly believe their eyes when they saw what seemed to be a motorized four-wheeled bicycle. However, this was only the first of a whole series of cars that Henry Ford was destined to build and develop, culminating just over ten years later in his famous ‘Tin Lizzie.’ This was a car that was bought by more people than any earlier car.

Henry was 32 years old, and chief engineer at the Detroit Edison Company, when he first frightened the local horses with his spluttering, backfiring ‘horseless-carriage.’ Every spare minute outside his job was spent on his ‘crazy’ hobby. He had not, of course, built the first car in the world, for steam-driven vehicles had been used in Britain for fifty years. But he was one of the pioneers of the petrol-propelled vehicle.

Henry was born on a farm near Detroit on 30th July, 1863; and it seems as if he became addicted to machinery almost as soon as he came into the world. His father could never get him interested in ploughing or milking, and his school career was a failure because his mind was always on cogs and pistons.

As a boy he spent a lot of time mending broken machinery in the area, as well as building water-wheels and steam turbines. He often occupied himself in the evenings by riding around the neighbouring farms, repairing clocks and watches. Eventually, when he was sixteen, he left the farm and went to Detroit, where he became an apprentice in a machine shop that made steam engines. At last, he was in the environment he loved, and he happily worked out his apprenticeship and then got a job repairing road engines for a firm in Detroit.

However his father was still anxious to get him back to farming and he offered Henry forty acres of land if he came and worked it. Henry tried it, but he did not enjoy it. He stayed at home long enough to court Clara Bryant and marry her, but he seemed to spend more time building petrol engines than he did farming. By 1891, he was back in Detroit, again burning the midnight oil in his woodshed on Bagley Avenue. He did not want to be distracted from his obsession with motor cars and his dreams of giving ordinary ‘plain folk,’ like himself, the opportunity of enjoying the fruits of technology. For in the eighteen-nineties, the motor car was a luxury which only the rich, very rich could afford, and that was something Henry wanted to change.

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The Brough Superior was the Rolls-Royce of motor cycles

Posted in Engineering, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Sport, Transport on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about motor cycles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

T E Lawrence,  picture, image, illustration
T E Lawrence on his Brough Superior motor cycle by John Keay

The lean figure settled into the saddle of his motor cycle as he left the R.A.F. camp. Fingers moved the throttle lever and the throaty burble of the twin exhausts rose to a harsher note as the needle of the speedometer swept round to 60 – 70 – 80 mph. Overhead, the pilot of a Bristol fighter plane noticed the swiftly moving dot below and, swooping down to the tree tops, he pointed along the road in challenge. The rider of the motor cycle grinned and urged his mount past the 90 mark. Motor cycle and plane gobbled up the miles as they fought out their odd duel, till, as they neared Lincoln, the rider slowed his machine to a sedate pace and the pilot wheeled away waving a salute.

The rider was Aircraftsman T. E. Shaw – better known as T. E. Lawrence – the famous Lawrence of Arabia. The motor cycle he was driving was a Brough Superior SS100 – a machine which was so far ahead of its time that even now, 40 years later, its looks would command attention and its guaranteed speed of over 100 mph would outpace many modern machines.

As early as 1922, the journal “The Motor Cycle” had called the Brough Superior, the Rolls-Royce of motor cycles and the firm had adopted this as its slogan. Rolls-Royce took great pride in its name and there is a story that an official was sent down to inspect the Brough works at Nottingham to see whether this slogan should be permitted.

He was taken into a room where two men in spotless white coats and white gloves were fitting a petrol tank to a machine that was gleaming in its perfection. This so impressed him that he went back satisfied. It was just as well, the story goes on, that no one told him that the men were building a special machine to be displayed at the next motor cycle show.

In fact, the slogan was fully justified, for throughout their history Brough Superiors were built with the utmost care and without regard to price. George Brough had worked in his father’s firm which produced the Brough motor cycle before World War I. In 1919, George decided that the time had come to market a superb and powerful luxury machine for the connoisseur. His father disagreed, so George left and set up on his own to make the Brough Superior.

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Dr Beebe was under tremendous pressure in his tiny bathysphere

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sea on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Beebe’s bathysphere first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 583 published on 17 March 1973.

Bathysphere,  picture, image, illustration
Beebe teamed up with Otis Barton and John Butler to build a Bathysphere by Aldo Torcchio

The hollow steel ball in which Dr. William Beebe and his assistant, Otis Barton, were about to risk their lives was no more than four feet, nine inches in diameter, and its walls were only an inch thick. The two men intended to dive into the ocean to a depth of over 3,000 feet or 500 fathoms.

Beebe had no illusions as to the risks they would be taking. He had already nearly lost his life in the bathysphere when it had drifted against a submerged reef, full of large spiky crags, capable of piercing his quartz windows. On another occasion his “air tight” door had begun to let in water so rapidly that it had been touch and go that they would be hauled to the surface before the cabin had filled with water. He had survived that, only to have a worse experience when a sudden hurricane had whipped up the waters to such an extent that his cable had been in danger of snapping.

All these accidents had happened when he had been exploring the undersea world in comparatively shallow waters. What would happen this time when he descended to a depth never before achieved by man?

Beebe had begun his career as an ornithologist, and it was not until he had reached middle-age that he became interested in marine life. For a long time he had explored the ocean in a diver’s suit, which he had found limiting and unsatisfactory. The idea of using a bathysphere had come to him while he was talking to President Theodore Roosevelt on the subject of creating some radically new technique with which men could explore the oceans of the world, free from the problems of pressure. He had already thought of using a diving chamber in the form of a cylinder, and he drew a rough sketch of it on a piece of paper. Roosevelt took the pencil from his hand and drew a sphere. It was, as Beebe realised later, an inspired suggestion, as a sphere would ensure an even distribution of pressure over the whole surface.

Now the bathysphere was about to descend to a depth far deeper than that even achieved by any submarine. For the first time, with luck, man would explore a strange underseas world where unknown species had existed, perhaps for millions of years before human life began. It was a solemn thought for the two men to take with them as they clambered into the bathysphere on that August day in 1934.

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“Great Britain’s” most momentous journey was her last voyage home

Posted in Conservation, Engineering, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about the S.S. Great Britain first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 582 published on 10 March 1973.

S.S. Great Britain, , picture, image, illustration
S.S. Great Britain arrives back in Bristol in 1970

Divers swarmed around the beached hulk of a once magnificent ship that lay partly submerged on the sand of Sparrow Cove in the Falkland Islands.

Battered by the sub-arctic waters of the icy Atlantic that had made a wide crack on the starboard side and pitted the sides with holes, she was the sad corpse of a pioneer of the oceans, the first screw steamer to cross the Atlantic.

A man of foresight, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, had designed her in 1843; the first ocean-going screw steamer. And another man of foresight, Dr. Ewan Corlett, a naval architect, was planning to bring her back to Britain.

To Dr. Corlett, this vessel, the S.S. “Great Britain” was as technically advanced for her time as the supersonic Concorde airliners of today, and for this reason she was worth preserving.

While the salvage experts were preparing the ship for her last historic voyage, Dr. Corlett must surely have reflected on the sequence of events that had brought the vessel to the Falkland Islands.

Her first trip to America had taken 15 days, an outstandingly short passage for those days. In her bunkers were a thousand tons of coal. And while her three hundred passengers enjoyed themselves in the enormous dining saloon or strolled upon her decks, her four-cylinder steam engine set the decks rumbling as it turned the giant-sized, six-bladed screw propeller.

There was 1,200 tons of cargo on board, stowed safely away from the eight roaring furnaces and three boilers that sent the ship surging through the sea at about 12 knots.

But she was an ill-fated ship. On her first voyage, she broke her propeller, which was replaced by a four-bladed one. In 1846, she ran ashore on the Irish coast and stayed there for nearly a year before she was refloated.

Another firm bought her, repaired her, gave her a new type of engine that was more powerful, and fitted a three-bladed propeller. After a while on the Atlantic run, she began carrying cargo between Britain and Australia.

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Flying cars can cause dangerous problems in a Grand Prix

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about motor racing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.

Grand Prix Problems,  picture, image, illustration
Wings were attached to cars in 1969 to improve road handling, but the wing on Graham Hill's car collapsed in the 1969 Grand Prix, and he crashed; Jochen Rindt, with a similar fault, struck Hill's car, by Graham Coton

Every motor race is a succession of heart-stopping thrills for the fans at the track sides as one breathtaking escapade follows another. Cars gyrate, find their true course and tear off for the next dangerous manoeuvre, only to skid or even soar into flight after hitting a bump in the road. Sometimes they flounder helplessly if a wheel spins away from its mounting.

Simultaneously, the drivers caught up in these risky mishaps are fighting fluttering hearts and rising temperatures as they struggle to master their fractious mounts. Every machine, every component, every strip of metal has its breaking point. And in the desperate striving for victory, the cars are driven daringly close to the point of disaster.

Even drivers who began their careers as mechanics and know exactly what they can ask of their car, are tempted to push the vehicle too hard in the excitement of the competitive atmosphere.

It was a temptation which Graham Hill encountered before he became the world’s champion driver for the first time in 1962 – he won the title again in 1968 – and it occurred during one of his first Grand Prix races. He found that during his first experience of the Belgian circuit, he was scared stiff when his car reached its greatest speed on the straight. As it went faster and faster, the road seemed to be getting narrower, and the margin of safety became minute.

Luckily, Hill had the sense to slacken speed and to go into the pits to think things over. Then, he went back to the track to do a few more laps. But this time, he was the car’s master and the speed worried him far less.

Of course, Hill had his share of trouble, but usually these were caused by unpredictable mechanical faults. These have varied from leaking brake fluid to a collapsed tyre. A worn tyre which went flat once sent his car sliding out of control at speed. The crash which followed broke one of his legs, dislocated another and put him out of racing for many months.

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Leslie Pennal – the pioneer perfectionist at Bentley

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Sport on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about motor racing first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 566 published on 18 November 1972.

Leslie Pennal of Bentley,  picture, image, illustration
Leslie Pennal was a pioneering mechanic of the early racing days who helped make the first Bentley engine and car, by Graham Coton

Blueprints were spread out upon a wooden bench in a small London workshop where a baby that was to startle the motoring world was slowly taking shape. A block and tackle hung from the roof, a lathe and other tools lined the walls, and poring over the plans or toiling at the squealing tools were a small group of men. They were the craftsmen who were making the first engine designed by W. O. Bentley, an idealist whose name was always to be remembered with pride.

The year was 1919, and Bentley had planned to make a car that would not only be fast and good, but the best in its class.

That he did so is shown by the fact that although his firm only existed from 1913 to 1931, when it was absorbed by Rolls-Royce, Bentley’s name has become synonymous with quality cars.

It is hard to realise that only about 3,000 Bentley cars were made, but they won world supremacy on the racing tracks and on the roads.

To ensure that his cars were always built to his high standards, Bentley assembled a group of the very best craftsmen he could find. One of these was Leslie Pennal, who joined the firm as a boy of seventeen, and helped to make the very first Bentley car.

When Bentley decided to race his cars to get publicity and attract customers, he chose Pennal as his riding mechanic. In this capacity, Pennal serviced Bentley’s car at the tracks and accompanied him during the races to repair any breakdowns.

This was his job until after the 1927 Le Mans race, when Bentley’s customers became of the first importance. Pennal then became a travelling mechanic, ready to go anywhere to service a customer’s car.

By this time, he had seen enough of high speed racing to know what performances could be expected of the Bentley cars. He also knew something about the men who drove them. At least he thought he did, until he went to Portugal to make some adjustments to a car owned by Count Antonio da Costa Cabral.

The Count decided to take his newly tuned-up car on a proving run through the mountains, accompanied by Pennal and two of his friends.

After zipping through towns and scattering ox-carts, startled people and laughing policemen, and zooming around trams, they drove on until they reached the narrow mountain roads.

As if this was not enough of a test, the Count became really excited when he spotted a little Bugatti car driven by a friend of his kicking up the dust on a lane below them.

It was like a red rag to a bull. No Bugatti could outrace a Bentley in the Count’s estimation.

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Frank Whittle designed the first jet-powered aeroplane

Posted in Aviation, Engineering, Famous Inventors, World War 2 on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about aviation first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 565 published on 11 November 1972.

The first jet,  picture, image, illustration
Gloster-Whittle E28 by Wilf Hardy

The month of May 1941 was far from uneventful for the people of Britain. In North Africa, British troops were under siege at Tobruk. An allied army was evacuated from Crete. In one night of bombing, 3,000 people were killed or injured in London. Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament were damaged and 2,000 fires were lit. Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, parachuted into Scotland. And the battleships Hood and Bismarck were sunk.

Of all these events, however, history will undoubtedly record that the most far reaching occurred over the Cranwell RAF College on May 15, 1941.

At 7.40 p.m. on that day, an aircraft was wheeled on to the runway and her engines roared into life. It was not the sound normally associated with an aeroplane, but a high-pitched whine which increased as the plane taxied and took off. Still screaming, the plane headed west at high speed. Then it roared back, executed a series of breathtaking, swooping turns and howled in to land.

That was all. No public announcement, no news cameras to record the scene. In fact, of those who were there on that historic day, only a small group knew that this short flight by the Gloster-Whittle E28/39 jet plane marked a landmark in aviation history. The world had been thrust forward into a new era where flights of giant aircraft carrying hundreds of passengers at great heights and at twice the speed of sound would be commonplace.

So well had the secret been kept that later an RAF officer was seen sitting in the mess with a frown on his face. When asked what was wrong, he replied that he had just seen an aeroplane going at a terrific speed, but there had been something odd about it. Then suddenly he stiffened. “I must be going round the bend,” he said. “It hadn’t got a propeller.”

Among those watching that May flight was Frank Whittle, the designer of this, the first British jet aircraft engine. For Whittle, the moment was the culmination of a dogged fight against great odds to bring to life an idea which, as a Cranwell cadet some 13 years before, he had suggested in a paper called “Future Developments in Aircraft Design.” In the paper, Whittle stated that if high speeds were to be combined with long range, it would be necessary to fly at great heights where the thinner air would reduce resistance to speed.

After leaving Cranwell as an officer, Frank Whittle put sketches and calculations for a gas turbine jet engine before the Air Ministry in 1929. They replied that they considered the scheme impracticable, as there were no metals strong enough to withstand the stresses and high temperatures necessary.

So to safeguard his idea Whittle took out a patent and told the Air Ministry, but they showed no interest.

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