Sep. 3, 2013

An Interruption

by Robert S. Foote

A boy had stopped his car
To save a turtle in the road;
I was not far
Behind, and slowed,
And stopped to watch as he began
To shoo it off into the undergrowth—

This wild reminder of an ancient past,
Lumbering to some Late Triassic bog,
Till it was just a rustle in the grass,
Till it was gone.

I hope I told him with a look
As I passed by,
How I was glad he'd stopped me there,
And what I felt for both
Of them, something I took
To be a kind of love,
And of a troubled thought
I had, for man,
Of how we ought
To let life go on where
And when it can.

"An Interruption" by Robert S. Foote. © Robert S. Foote. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

The U.S. War of Independence officially ended on this day in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The war, which began at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, had more or less been over for two years, since Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, but the American Navy continued harassing the British. And by the time the treaty was signed, the American fleet had captured dozens of British ships. The treaty required Britain to recognize the independence of the United States and to cede all lands east of the Mississippi to the U.S.

It's the birthday of the American architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856), born in Boston. He worked in Chicago in the 1880s and '90s, when the city was teeming with immigrants, grain trading, and railroads. Sullivan designed more than 100 buildings for the city, including its early steel-frame skyscrapers — innovations in their day for using a kind of experimental skeleton construction on the inside and intricate, subtle ornamentation outside. He is remembered for his influential words, "Form follows function."

It's the birthday of novelist Alison Lurie (books by this author), born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York. She's best known as a novelist; her books include Imaginary Friends (1967), The War Between the Tates (1974), and Foreign Affairs (1984), for which she won the Pulitzer. Her books tend to feature highly educated protagonists — often academics — negotiating the perils and pitfalls of their personal relationships. She divides her time between Florida, England, and Ithaca, New York, where she has taught writing and literature at Cornell University since 1970.
In her novel Real People (1969), she wrote: "... you can't write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. And I don't want even to try anymore. I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear."

It's the birthday of British manufacturer Matthew Boulton, born in Birmingham, England (1728). Boulton and his business partner James Watt introduced the public to the Boulton & Watt steam engine, a machine that revolutionized manufacturing.

Boulton came from a steel manufacturing family. Their company was called a "toymaking business," but they weren't making children's toys. Toys meant something more like what we mean when say trinkets — a book from the 1760s about Birmingham's toymakers says that the steel toymakers manufactured, among other things: "Cork Screws, Buckles, Draw and other Boxes; Snuffers, Watch Chains, Stay Hooks, Sugar Knippers &c." When Boulton was 17, he developed a special technique for buckles inlaid with enamel. They were exported to France and then imported back to England, where they were touted as the latest French fashion, and everybody wanted one. After that success, he never left the business.

When his father died, Boulton took over the family's business and expanded it to a much bigger property. It didn't take him long to realize that he needed more hydropower to run his facilities, especially during the summer when the stream on his property ran slowly. He decided that he needed a steam engine — but a more effective steam engine than what existed on the market.

In the existing steam engine model, power was generated by the repeated heating and cooling of a cylinder. First water was boiled to generate steam, and then cold water was injected to condense the steam. This created a vacuum that pushed the piston up, and gravity pulled it back down. This model meant that with every stroke, the steel of the cylinder was cooled and then reheated, which wasted a huge amount of energy.

In 1768, Boulton met an inventor named James Watt. Watt had been asked to repair a steam engine for a university, and he was shocked at how inefficient it was. So for the next couple of years, he brainstormed ways to fix that fundamental problem. Finally, he came up with a solution. His idea was to operate the engine on the same basic principles as its predecessor, but with a separate condenser, so that the steel steam cylinder remained hot all the time. The steam flowed from the cylinder into a separate condenser, where it was cooled into water. This design was much more powerful because the energy of the steam wasn't compromised by constantly cooling it down. Watt constructed a working model, which seemed successful, but he was stuck there. He didn't have the capital to fund his project, and he couldn't find or afford any metal workers who would be able to craft something as precise as he needed for his new design. And he was a terrible businessman — he said, "I would rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain."

That's where Matthew Boulton came in. Not only did Boulton have the business know-how and the funding, but he also could offer top-quality metalworkers to work on the design. On top of that, he had the incentive to make sure the engine worked, because it would vastly improve his own manufacturing business. The two men became business partners and patented the steam engine, and for decades they had a monopoly on steam engines. With such an efficient source of power, industrialization took off, and many people consider the Boulton-Watt steam engine to be the machine that made the Industrial Revolution possible. The partnership between the two men was a big success, continuing for 25 years until they retired and passed the company on to their sons.

Boulton said: "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have — power."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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