Thursday, 7 April 2016

Evolution of Engineering and Serendipity

16/08/2016: A new addition on the latest example of Serendipity is added at the end.

13/04/2016: Some additional paragraphs added to include 'nuclear engineering' and take the journey up to present age .  
The first early man who wielded a club in his hands got a 'leverage' over others. The first man who used a sharp edged flat stone as a tool or a weapon used the mechanical advantage of 'inclined plane' and another man who noticed that a bent branch of a tree springs back when released, used it to throw a stone or a stick with this 'spring'. Perhaps some time later, another early man realized that rolling a round shaped log or stone is easier than pushing, pulling or lifting and carrying it. He can be said to have discovered 'the wheel'. All of these events had occurred in prehistoric days, but the lever, the inclined plane, the spring and the wheel are used in some form or other ever since and in most of the machines or mechanical gadgets even today. It may be a coincidence that वामन , परशुराम, श्रीराम and श्रीकृष्णअवतार of दशावतार of श्रीविष्णु भगवान  used no weapon, परशु , धनुष्य  and सुदर्शन चक्र in the same order. Discovery of fire, another epoch making discovery was perhaps made in parallel and independent of search of getting mechanical advantage. All of them would fall under 'serendipity'

Mechanical engineering was primarily put to use to develop effective weapons to fight wild animals, tame domestic animals and also to conquer and lord over other people. जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस !  has been the law of jungle. The weapons were also suitably modified to make useful tools to cut, dig, shove etc. in initial period and then for more sophisticated uses such as transportation and even production of goods after the 'civilization' of mankind. Once the fire was brought under control it was also used to extract and shape metals to desired forms to make better weapons, implements and tools. Thus evolution of mechanical engineering and also metallurgy has no known beginning and is going on for millions of years. However, it got a major breakthrough when steam engines were invented to convert heat energy into mechanical energy.

when the early man, who was initially a hunter, stopped wandering and started cultivation and farming, he built houses to live and roads to take his cattle and carts. Humans beings social animals, they formed villages and lived in groups. It was the start of 'civilization'. The activities of building houses, other structures, roads, bunds, canals, drainage etc came under 'Civil' engineering. This branch is also as old as ancient civilizations.

Man was fascinated by the natural chemical reactions and went on making experiments with various metals, nonmetals, salts, minerals and chemicals. When he was successful in getting useful outputs in a predictable way, he worked on optimization of the processes and 'Chemical engineering' was born. Main motivations for this branch were to make explosive weapons and useful medicines, paints, ink etc. and also the hunt for a magic formula of converting copper or iron it to gold.

For some reason, Electrical engineering was born much later, less than a couple of centuries ago. This branch further developed into electronics, computer, communications, Internet etc. in leaps and bounds and its rate of growth is much faster than any other branch. But, why did it make such a late entry? That too through 'Serendipity' in Michael Faraday's experiment! Some technological as well as metaphysical aspects are discussed in this interesting blog.

Simple Definition of serendipity for refreshing memory:
: Luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for

The long gap in the evolution of engineering knowledge,  with the first revolution as late as 1700, and the second with Electricity after a still further  200 years, followed  by leaps and bounds development of other engineering branches, was reminiscent of my erratic KNOWLEDGE CURVE  proposition mail, a few months ago!

I revisited the thread to find a reference to the Indo-Lanka  bridge of Ramayana  built by  'monkeys'. (VANARAS would have been a more  dignified  word,  Mohan Rao ji), which reminded me of our ancient engineering  as depicted in our epics.
Vishwakarma was the architect of  the illusory palace in Mahabharata, where the  pandavas  stayed.
His son Nala is mentioned as the architect, the task given on the advice of the sea god along with an assurance to Rama that he would support it from below, of the  bridge  over the sea to  Lanka.(quoted by  Mohan Rao  as Hanuman,  who was  more of a devotional, emotional  type than an engineer )
The Ramayana  story goes that Rama prayed to the sea god for three days for help in crossing the ocean. With no response, he got angry and aimed his formidable weapon, Brahmastra, at the sea. Thereupon, the sea god appeared before him and said 'I cannot help you by  going against my Dharma, which is my Depth, as much as the Fire god cannot  be cool, against its Dharma of being hot, to oblige anybody!'
However, the sea god obliged Rama within its Dharma by making the above suggestion and offer.
The story goes  that the vanaras had to cut every tree within  sight and break the rocks (what would our environmental protagonists say now?) to build the bridge, not reaching the unfathomable Depth, but supported at the bottom by the obliging sea. (by some augmentation of the force of buoyancy ?)
My reference to this version is an English  Srimad Ramayana by D S Sarma. (which also refers to Jabali persuading Rama to abandon the exile mission, in addition to numerous net references, I found on my curiosity)
My emphasis is on the proclaimed  Depth Dharma and the consequent floating bridge built, supported by the sea god , which according to the epic, must have disappeared or dissolved in the depth, once the purpose was over, not being built on Terra Firma.
Unmindful of this, we hear stories that the mountain bridge could still be seen in the ocean ( even claiming that some NASA pictures support this, without any  official  denial or confirmation), and it is of mythological significance and could not be destroyed, thus standing in the way of a proposed project for sea route , SETHUSAMUDRAM SHIPPING CANAL  project,  issue suddenly becoming sensitive because of religious overtones.
Politics and religion crossing swords, with no solution, Factual engineering assessment kept at a distance.
Another incidental information is that, while detailed engineering information is provided on the  CIVIL eng aspects of the bridge construction in Ramayana, other  engineering aspects  like flying by Hanuman and  Rakshasas, Aviation,  missile weapons used, Asthras,  etc are not covered to that detail and simply attributed to  boons given by gods, to chosen individuals,   sought after  painstaking penance  ( tapas)., not taught in gurukulas also, (where other martial arts, in addition to intricacies of vedas, were taught),  as one can read in epics. This  may be significant with some claims made about our knowledge on aviation and missile technology in  Idhihasa  period.
It is also pertinent that  apart from  conventional weapons like bows and arrows, swords, spears, daggers, tree trunks, stones maces etc on one side and the god given astras on the other extreme, no hint was made about explosive devices, chemical or nuclear, not even as a conjecture of imagination.
this brand was to evolve later.
  Such gifts of Tapas  as boons from gods, the ultimate weapons used in the epic battles to bring them to a final close,  could well have been  the poet's privilege, like our modern Harry Potter's imagery projections.
Just some stray thoughts on engineering knowledge as revealed  from Epics
As an after -thought , to make the story on Evolution of engineering    complete, I am adding a piece of an old mail on Knowledge curve, dated mid june,15 (hoping  on the short life of our Memory!)

"Sometimes a simple but epoch making discovery may elude mankind for centuries, even millenniums!
as happened with Electrical Engineering putting its origin very much  later to  that of other engineering branches.
All the branches of engineering, starting from the oldest, Civil,  had an imperceptible beginning in history , at some conducive period, and steady growth,  acquiring the name itself at a later stage of  Consolidation(!), including the latest Nuclear,
- Nuclear Engineering, the latest ,as an example, could not have happened earlier, as it needed the growth of other supportive technologies, till the right time-

Civil has its origin in oldest Harappa civilization days, with houses and drainage systems  built,
Mechanical , to as old as invention of wheels,
Chemical to the ancient Alchemist who tried to make gold etc;
After the discovery of FIRE and WHEELS, probably in the beginning of Common Era ,  the technological growth was in rapid strides, spurred by NEED and GREED , starting from experiments to make gold and tools, even without  the yet to evolve  Electrical Engineering.

As against the above, in my perception, Electrical Engineering has a  defined date of birth, if the discovery of electricity could be taken as the origin, which  came  very much later,  less than 200 years ago, from now  ( civil, mechanical and chemical  being thousands of years old ), a  discovery which may fall under Serendipity?

Lightening, static charges, rudimentary chemical batteries, all ingredients for Electrical, were known to mankind thousands of years ago.
The materials needed like magnets, metal wire, supporting technology in other areas, were  all there for the asking, ready for deployment, all these times.

Still it took ages, before Mich Faraday could accidentally rotate a wire coil in between the magnetic poles, to sense and DISCOVER  ELECTRICITY,   actually  as late as 1830CE, for this Engineering to get established, as we know it today.

a BRANCH, which became pivotal for the growth of other branches , which was epoch making by its own right ,too.,
a branch which paved the way for other much sophisticated   branches to follow like electronic and computer engineering ,
a branch that suddenly jerked up the KNOWLEDGE CURVE to a steep positive slope!

What a tremendous change it would have made to History of  Civilisation (Technology?) if, a big IF, the serendipity of the discovery of Electricity had happened at a logically much earlier timeframe!
Why was Nature  holding this from mankind for that long!
Puzzle to ponder!"

Anand Ghare (Myself):

We have not been taught advances in science and technology in a chronological manner. So I am not exactly aware which instruments or gadgets were available to detect electric current at what point of time. Perhaps Michael Faraday's coil might have just produced a spark. Was there any galvanometer at that time? I have read a story that The PM of England at that time asked Faraday, "What is use of your discovery?" A confident Faraday humorously replied, "Sir, You may be able to tax the electricity some day."

What I feel that The wheel was giving mechanical advantage that anybody could understand and hence it led to several other series of inventions. Similarly effects of fire (heat and light) were easily sensible, so a lot of work was done to control it by choice fuels, explosives etc.

However, the lightning was a momentary phenomenon (still uncontrollable) that produced more fear than curiosity. Rudimentary batteries also would not have produced more than just sparks. As I remember Michael Faraday also found the connection between electricity and chemical reaction (rather dissociation) as he thought of connection between electricity and magnetism. Further spurt of advances in electrical engineering were made possible as the measuring instruments were developed. That was in turn possible because of advances in Metallurgy and Chemical and Mechanical engineering, Glass technology etc.

These are just my thoughts and are open to correction.

K.Natarajan :
History of electricity
I would put in a small note in response to the materialistic portion of Ghare ji's comments, the metaphysical heights of the thread being much beyond me.

The difference lies  in distinction between static and commercial electricity. The static sparks and other manifestations were known around 2000 BCE! Benjamin Franklin's experiments  in 17th century with kites and lightening only established electricity as static electricity and whatever Ghareji said are true.
Volta made some progress  in introducing dynamism to electricity, a little bit later, with  chemical means of producing sustained  electricity,origin of voltaic cells, but nowhere near large scale application.
 It is  only after the discovery of electric motor, by Farady in mid 1800, that the dynamic evolution started, followed by electric bulbs and lighting, Edison, small scale generation and transportation to light a street(first time in Newyork) and very rapidly followed by large scale generation, transportation and application, wireless electricity, with Markoni discovering radio and more and more sophisticated branches coming, like computer, digital and  net, in increasingly compressed time-scale!
The non availability of  measuring instruments does not appear to had been a serious handicap.
The philosophical surmise was, while  in other branches,the development was gradual but making progress, there was a large delay  between pre CE awareness  and productive  application  in as late as 1800 CE., for Electrical Engineering.,
and on Nature's peculiar Hyde and Seek game,not amenable to any Karma theory!
Only a curious thought, no great topic for discussion!

Anand Ghare (Myself):
Thanks Natarajanji for recounting the brief history of static and dynamic electricity.  I had tried to explain that other forms of energy such as heat, light, sound and flow of water or air can be directly sensed by our sense organs and hence they were better understood and used by mankind earlier. An electric shock can also be sensed, but it is rather frightful and in a different category.
Electricity was popularized by inventions of Edison who offered a complete package from generation to utilization. It grew by leaps and bounds thereafter because of advantages over engines.

Some additional thoughts:

K.Natarajan :-
We all know:
The time scale evolved by historians for the history of civilization, consisting of the Preneolithic age, Neolithic,  followed by the Paleolithic Period, or age of chipped-stone tools, commonly classified as Stone Age, and followed by the Bronze Age, Iron Age, or early period of metal tools before the advent of Modern Era, all based on Tools and Metals.

Possibly a further subdivision of Modern Era could emerge, based on Energy Utilisation like
Natural Energy Era-  utilising the naturally available resources  like water pumps, windmills, sail boats etc,
Electrical  Energy Era -ushered in by the discovery of electricity and fostered by feed of fossil fuel,
to be followed by
Nuclear  Energy Era.

The last mentioned comes last  since  it could not have been there  earlier as a controlled energy source, as distinct from uncontrolled fission-fusion energy in the sun from time immemorial, requiring  as it does, a fundamental need for some form of enrichment of naturally occurring materials,  like enriched uranium, or heavy water, or nuclear grade graphite,  which  would be possible only after a certain level of industrial revolution.

That is what I thought, until I came across this very illuminating article  on the Mysteries of Nature,  about nuclear reactors being active naturally, even  before the dawn of civilization!,
without any human Design  or Control !

which I would like to share with the readers, for reading pleasure at leisure!

Click here for the article.

K.Natarajan :
While some branches of engineering, got gradually evolved even without a name, electrical falls under accidental discovery, serendipity,  where as Nuclear Engineering is special in that, at a certain point in evolution, man saw a possibility of this new engineering, moved ahead in search of it and CONSCIOUSLY DEVELOPED that from scratch!

Anand Ghare (myself)
 Historians might have given some names to different periods of history based on the archeological finds and their carbon dating. However, it may not mean that the tools made of stone or bronze or iron were being used in certain time bound specific periods by homosepians all over the world, especially when the means of communication were so poor.

The living habits have changed so fast in the last few decades that I have seen use of firewood in a चूल्हा, kerocene in a stove and liquefied petroleum gas in burners and also electrical coils and hot plates for daily cooking. I have also seen the grinding stones as well as the food processors and know some people who have both in their kitchens. I read a post today written by a NRI in UK stating that he took a stainless steel खलबत्ता to pound and crush groundnuts to make chutney, because he does not enjoy the taste of powdered groundnut chutney made in a food processer. All this in the short span of my life. What would have happened over time periods of centuries and millenium? The point I want to make is that the so called ages were overlapping.

If we use the 'use of energy source' as a criteria to redifine ages, I would say
1. Animal power- mainly for agriculture, (including drawing water from wells) and transportation apart from dairy.
2. Natural resources like wind for sailed boats, wind mills, flow of water for water wheel and barges to transport to downstream
3. Heat engines (burning coal, firewood, petroleum products, natural gas) for directly driving machines (converting heat in to mechanical energy)- Begining of the modern era of Industrial revolution and still continuing in case of vehicles.
4. Electrical power: conversion of heat or water pressure first in to electrical energy and then its use to drive machines through motors - Started about a century ago and continuing.
5. Nuclear power: It appeared on the horizon in mid sixties but did not actually arrive with a bang. It is coexisting with conventional types, hydro and thermal and may thrive perhaps after exhausting all relatively inexpensive fossil fuels. Thereafter it will co exist with natural resources like Solar and wind power, as they are on come back trail.

It is true that nuclear power was 'CONSCIOUSLY DEVELOPED that from scratch!', but the underlying basic principle was perhaps a sort of 'serendipity'. Discovery of radioactivity, that of fission reaction and detection of neutron itself were not planned actions to my knowledge. I think they were noticed when the scientists were reseaching for something else. Enrico Fermi and his colleagues successfully developed the original 'pile' to create sustained and controlled chain reaction in a safe manner. They could achieve that with great amount of determination and dedicated efforts after many attempts had failed and the pile was rearranged again and again after studying the earlier results.  Rest of the journey of nuclear power has been at the initiative of 'those magnificent men' who developed engineering of core, shielding, process systems and the most important of all fail-safe control systems.

The natural reactor described in the link just produced heat and cooled down. That heat was not purposefully utilized. It may remain as a 'wonder' of the nature and a subject for study by the nuclear scientists.


A new addition to Serendipity:

UC Irvine Accidentally Invents a Battery that Lasts Forever
Joins Play-Doh and champagne as the world’s best unintended innovations.


What do Viagra, popsicles, Corn Flakes, Ivory soap, the kitchen microwave, and champagne have in common? They were all discovered by accident. Add ultra-long-lasting nanowire batteries to that list, thanks to a team of researchers at the University of California Irvine. The average laptop battery is rated anywhere from 300 to 500 charge cycles – completely full to completely empty to completely full again – longer if you don’t use it all up before recharging. The UCI nanobattery endured 200,000 charge cycles over three months “with 94–96% average Coulombic efficiency.” It was effectively still brand new at the end of the experiment.

Let’s go conservative and say the average laptop battery lasts for 1,000 charge cycles, its capacity noticeably diminished after about two years. If that laptop had UCI's nanobattery it would easily last for 400 years (if 1,000 cycles = two years, 200,000 cycles = 400 years). That’s long enough for that laptop to share a name with, but be far less useful than, an actual brick. If UCI can apply its findings to commercial uses, there’s a revolution coming throughout the electronic landscape.

The advance happened when UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai “was playing around” in the lab and coated a set of gold nanowires in manganese dioxide, then applied a “Plexiglas-like” electrolyte gel. Under normal circumstances, nanowires – highly conductive but thousands of times thinner than a human hair – are useless after no more than 8,000 charge cycles because their fragility causes them to crack during charge and discharge loads. At the end of three months, however, the researchers found the nanowires in Thai’s gel-coated battery still intact. They suspect that the gel “plasticizes the metal oxide in the battery,” imbuing the nanowires with flexibility, which equals longevity. Thai said, "The coated electrode holds its shape much better.” The school published its findings in the American Chemical Society journal Energy Letters.

We’re a long way from an immortal, practical battery, though. In 2007 scientists at Stanford came up with a nanowire configuration that got a nanobattery through 40,000 charge cycles. The lead researcher said at the time that manufacturing needed “one or two different steps, but… it’s a well understood process.” Nine years later we’re still carrying charging bricks and fighting over public USB ports.
-- ---------------------------

University of California, Irvine researchers have invented nanowire-based battery material that can be recharged hundreds of thousands of times, moving us closer to a battery that would never require replacement. The breakthrough work could lead to commercial batteries with greatly lengthened lifespans for computers, smartphones, appliances, cars and spacecraft.

Scientists have long sought to use nanowires in batteries. Thousands of times thinner than a human hair, they’re highly conductive and feature a large surface area for the storage and transfer of electrons. However, these filaments are extremely fragile and don’t hold up well to repeated discharging and recharging, or cycling. In a typical lithium-ion battery, they expand and grow brittle, which leads to cracking.

UCI researchers have solved this problem by coating a gold nanowire in a manganese dioxide shell and encasing the assembly in an electrolyte made of a Plexiglas-like gel. The combination is reliable and resistant to failure.

The study leader, UCI doctoral candidate Mya Le Thai, cycled the testing electrode up to 200,000 times over three months without detecting any loss of capacity or power and without fracturing any nanowires. The findings were published today in the American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters.

Hard work combined with serendipity paid off in this case, according to senior author Reginald Penner.

“Mya was playing around, and she coated this whole thing with a very thin gel layer and started to cycle it,” said Penner, chair of UCI’s chemistry department. “She discovered that just by using this gel, she could cycle it hundreds of thousands of times without losing any capacity.”

“That was crazy,” he added, “because these things typically die in dramatic fashion after 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 cycles at most.”

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