Naming Convention 03 – A Rebuttal

David Evans did not agree with the points made here and here before. You remember that he is the Membership Director of the British Computer society [BCS] and has commented in the last two posts. This time he responds:

As I inferred previously, it is very important to me that engineers and engineering principles are at home in BCS. They are a critical component (but not the only component) of what this field actually is.

He insists that The Lad is in error.

Computing is sometimes pretty abstract, but not as disconnected from the physical as you suggest. Code is at the end of the day not abstract mathematics, but instructions that will be transduced into physical effects in both light and matter. By definition, code designed to be run will have a physical impact. It can also be argued as the application of computer science, and as such gets back to the core of engineering as the application of science (though predicated of course on computer science being an accepted term). Through those arguments, and potentially others, software engineering is full-blooded engineering, and benefits from the application of the well-developed fundamental principles of engineering common across all fields.

 The Lad notes that his definition of engineering is not the ‘application of science’ but the ‘manipulation of forces’ [for the benefit of human kind]. Thus it is in the earliest days of the Athenian Navy trireme and Roman aqueducts, engineering existed before they had the benefit of science as we currently know it.

I’d also challenge whether the entire body of what you’re currently calling engineers would be comfortable with the suggestion that they are so disconnected from organisations and people. I think both from a design and implementation perspective, people (their behaviours, the impact on them) are often very important to engineers and engineering projects.

This is a valid point that he had not made plain. The truth is that any engineering project has to take proper account of the ‘human environment’. Otherwise it will be deemed, correctly, a failure.

In summary though, The Lad still defines the engineering product as something you can touch. If you cannot then – it is mathematics, or science or logic or philosophy. Or perhaps something else entirely…

… Something else entirely.

David Evans also pointed to a piece by Jeannette M. Wing, President’s Professor of Computer Science, Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University, USA. The Lad will go along with her. As David said “It is essentially an argument for computing as its own discipline rather than a slave to engineering or mathematics.”

A single small quote from Professor Wing’s piece that gives a flavour without The Lad doing her too much injustice is that she says computational thinking has many characteristics, but one is:

[It] Complements and combines mathematical and engineering thinking. Computer science inherently draws on mathematical thinking, given that, like all sciences, its formal foundations rest on mathematics. Computer science inherently draws on engineering thinking, given that we build systems that interact with the real world. The constraints of the underlying computing device force computer scientists to think computationally, not just mathematically. Being free to build virtual worlds enables us to engineer systems beyond the physical world.

Gathering up some loose ends

Or should it be some loose nuts and bolts? The mention of Meccano in the previous post in the picture of Maurice Wilkes and the differential analyser brought The Lad up short for a moment

Meccano and proto-engineers go together in the world view of the generation of The Lad’s father. In this ancient view, it was a pre-requisite that all engineers originally wore the short trousers and built models in Meccano of such unlikely complexity as the Forth Bridge or a Steam Shovel see below and a previous post.

Meccano cover
This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Steve Johnson. This applies worldwide.


Gulp! Do such echoes of Wilkes and a previous generation persuade The Lad that the origins of IT involved engineering, albeit of the model genus? Would he have to alter his stance on the variable relationship between IT and engineering?

Scratches head.

Ah, yes. We know what to say… No change in the IT stance – because Wilkes’s machine was analogue. Moving quickly on.

The Name of Engineering on TV

There was a BBC2 “Engineering Giants programme on Sunday 15 July 2012. It was the first of a new series exploring how large machines work. The programme watches, in the words of the Sunday Times, a 14 year-old Boeing 747 jumbo jet being taken apart and re-assembled. In engineering reality, it really means that it was stripped down, examined, repaired as necessary and re-assembled.

It was a pretty good programme considering the dearth until recently of programmes addressing any sort of engineering. Let there be more such.

Pity they called everyone in shot ‘engineers’ when all [except two presenters] were technicians. Yes, all were of the engineering profession. There are many in the profession but not all are engineers. The aircraft designers and those who specify the test standards [none of whom appeared] are the engineers.

Though both are members of the ‘medical profession’ no one refers to nurses as doctors or vice versa. Solicitors and barristers are distinct members of the legal profession.

So to are, in the engineering profession, engineers, technicians and mechanics amongst others. They are not to be confounded.

Oh Lord! I’m tiring! Let us leave that battle to another day.

The Lad suspects that this thread is running out of steam for the moment or, at least, running the risk of trespassing on the goodwill of our reader. She needs a return to a post on ‘engineering-engineering’ and away from ‘name-engineering’. We can come back to it when there is something more to add.

Let The Lad move on for the moment to the next post on the swimmer.

What’s the Naming Convention 01?

The Lad was delighted to read that the head honcho of Google – no less – was pressing the importance of engineering. This was still true even in the present world, said Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, in his speech the other day at the Science Museum, London. To many of his clients that present world is cyberspace. The only way seemingly to get a copy of the speech is to approach Anoek Eckhardt, Communications & Public Affairs Manager, Google UK & Ireland at

It was very wide-ranging of course but it was in a part towards the end that his very words were:

“Pure Science is a crucial ingredient, but it’s only when theory is applied that you have the recipe for economic success. As Edison put it, the value of an idea lies in using it.

That’s why engineering is so important – it is, by definition, applied science. While astronomy inspires us to reach for the stars, we rely on avionics experts to take us there.. Physics helps explain the behaviour of subatomic particles; nanotechnology uses them to make things. Materials science determines the properties of things we build with; structural engineers apply that knowledge to design things that won’t fall down.

Unfortunately, engineering still has an image problem. It’s high time to move beyond the oily tag stereotype and show engineering in its true modern light.”

What a marvellous statement, as a whole, to emanate from Google. The Lad had a minor quibble about ‘space flight relying on “avionics experts”. Avionics is a shortened form of ‘aviation electronics’. It is an important component of the space project but a wide range of disciplines is needed to get anywhere in Space. But let us move on.

But then The Lad noted also that he referred to

“…the role of engineers in developing ….. video games, texting and social networking,….” as well as “Only 2% of Google engineers …”

This blog is about topics in such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, etc., etc. It has a working definition for such as these which involves natural forces in the world. This blog has addressed this before. Go to ‘The Engineer as Rock God’ .

The Lad then asked himself the question whether it is generally accepted, not just in Google, that every professionally qualified IT professional in any speciality [coder, circuit designer etc., etc.] is titled an Engineer? His first thought was that coding is more akin to mathematics or accountancy or the Law rather than engineering.

But then chip design on the other hand seemed clearly an engineering discipline grounded on electrical forces and a type of production engineering. The design of hard disc drives, with their seemingly never-ending increase of storage size, he thinks must involve components of the highest accuracy and of minute size but is engineering nonetheless.

David Evans Director, Membership for British Computer Society, , [BCS] which is the Chartered Institute for IT, answered the questions whether the BCS has an official position on the title or whether it could advise on current usage. It transpired that here, with this question, we were stepping lightly into an area freighted with emotion. Highlights of what, in a very full and exclusive discussion, he told us are:

“Interesting question! This is without a shadow of a doubt a very emotive topic for our members, our sector, and for the engineering community as a whole. …

 We offer CEng [Chartered Engineer as offered by many other Engineering Institutions] licensed through the Engineering Council, but as a Chartered body ourselves we offer Chartered IT Professional [CITP]. … There are … people who are very clearly in the CITP domain and others who are clearly in the CEng domain.

We are very clear that it is necessary for us to have CITP, as there are people who are IT professionals who would have no affinity with or interest in CEng, but are very much the sort of people who should achieve a Chartered status.”

The highlights of what a member also told us are:

“While UK-SPEC lays out the competencies for an engineer, … being an engineer is as much about identity and attitude as it is about competency … to some degree a state of mind. … for the average IT professional it is so much more about people and organisations. … IT professionals enable organisations to function, change, grow and adapt. … engineers will always be part of the profession, and engineering will always be the close cousin.”

Dame Wendy Hall is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and was Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science.  She is clearly a power in Global IT and, with her current research interests being the Web, her views carry great weight. She wrote directly to The Lad that:

“I am convinced that software engineering is indeed a branch of engineering. Software engineers build things. The things they build have to be robust, reliable, efficient, effective etc., etc

The robustness and reliability of software is of vital importance in many applications (can mean the difference between life and death) and so software engineering as a discipline must be taught in accordance with the principles of what it means to be a chartered engineer just like any other branch of engineering.

… being CEng means more [than CITP] to me. … we teach a degree called Computer Science but it is to all intents and purposes a Software Engineering degree and I’m very proud that … our students are qualified achieve the award of CEng.

Computer Science is … both a science and engineering. … it has a proper place in the panoply of engineering disciplines.”

Here is an intellectually powerful, highly distinguished academic who is, both a CEng and, also wants to be an engineer. Respect! Genuinely, engineers must be very grateful for this, and accept it graciously. The Lad certainly does. Lord knows; there are so few engineers of the status of Professor Hall apparent to the popular consciousness.

Well there you have it. We have three distinguished practitioners regarding themselves as engineers and two of them have taken significant time to wrestle with our question for us. What are we to make of it? What is there to be said?

Statements and questions follow. Discuss.

Robustness and reliability in the practice and drafting of a law can mean the difference between life and death but is not engineering.

Is not the ‘art of the possible’ in coding governed mostly by the mathematical logic of the mathematician?

Does a hard-nosed, results-oriented attack on obstacles in any endeavour make it engineering?

Can the chip manufacturer or the designer of a high speed printer be a member of the same profession as coder or designer of a server operating system?

Is the cabinet maker a member of the same profession as the toolmaker of her planes and chisels.

No more an author is a printer or bookmaker.

How true is it that “Software engineers build things.”? Should not “things” have more substance than software “objects”?

Has the title ‘School of Electronics and Computer Science’ got it about right?

It has been more difficult to write this post than any other so far. The Lad moved easily into pompous sermonising: there came rolling phrases and solemn cadences about misuse of language, naming conventions, wanting being not enough and so on for several, heavy paragraphs without end coming into sight.

But to hell with it: it’s really simple.

The word ‘engineer’ began with those who began devising and building structures to generate or convert existing forces to replace human, animal or wind and water power with something more convenient. Engines, see?

To repeat: up until recently all those engineers (undoubted engineers – such as civil, electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, etc. etc.) have each waged the one common, fundamental struggle. It is that of dealing with forces already existing in the natural world to bend them to the benefit of humankind. This common feature must, therefore, be the fundamental criterion for inclusion under the aegis of the term.The only exceptions have been those writers who would, describing individuals or tasks, use the term to picture a practical person in some sort of analogy.

Those who design and build physical computers or components are wrestling with electromagnetic forces in electronic components and materials. They are, thus, engineers. However, those who conceive the software structure and write the instructions are not dealing with forces in the natural world. They can only be engineers in some analogy: treating with ‘forces’ of logic in some Platonic world of Ideals.

Then, consider the infinite plasticity of Turing’s Universal machine. What could be more remote from the challenges of the natural world and its real, physical working materials? These challenges and materials comprise the world of the engineer. Ergo! The workers in Information Technology systems design and software programmers are not engineers.

This is not to suggest in any way that the software and systems tasks that they face are easy. Indeed, in some ways, due to the almost infinite size of the field of endeavour; the logical intensity of a complex program and the consequences of error [NatWest, 2012 and spacecraft – say no more] the tasks provide the highest intellectual challenge.

Sorry, not to say bold, to turn Google away,

What to call them is the topic of the next post. Here is a teaser: in what way will this image will be part of it?

In the Public Domain (EU and US)

So! “Schubert Lab”?

Then why not “Dyson Lab”, or Lovelace, Faraday, Bamford?

The great composers of classical music are celebrated as intellectually subtle, with wide achievements that buttress our civilisation, and enrich our culture.

A series of ‘Schubert Lab’ programmes recently on Radio Three featured experts and were for the interest of the lay–person. They spoke of the keys and chords; not in general but digging deeply into named pieces of music,. The programmes must have totalled something like 3 hours over 8 days in a Schubert strand that was 200 hours overall.

One of them, for example, discussed Schubert harmonies. Laura Tonbridge, an academic, spoke to Tom Service of a song that describes a journey and then he went to the meta-level by suggesting the journey that ends six years later as another song also about a journey. Then Jonathan Cross, a pianist talked about harmonies in another song that “sets up the home key of E minor ….. and then suddenly just by changing one note he moves the bass down a semi-tone and ….the [whole song] as if flips through the other side of a mirror”.

This is no aberration: many programmes scattered throughout the 24 hours on Radio Three operate at this level. It is powerful, technical, professional stuff with no patronising. There is no pandering to an audience that is without knowledge of music theory and notation; it is aimed at those who revel in subtle, new ideas. No dumbing-down here then. And – it’s before the watershed.

The great engineers are equally subtle, with wide achievements that buttress our civilisation, and enrich our culture. Yes. Yes, alright! So too are scientists. If this is a disturbing, unacceptable idea, it is because we hear in our education and the media so little of the detail of the engineers’ work, achievements and satisfactions. There is, in this field, nothing similar to the Schubert Lab other than, possibly, ‘The Material World’ on Radio Four.

Why not have expert, practising engineers speaking of their work, the whys and wherefores?

The Dam designer could describe what the choices are in choosing the type of dam [concrete arch, earth], how to build it without it being washed away as fast as they work, and what she has to consider before the water is finally held back.

A contemporary engineer can describe fibre composite materials and their unusual, non-isotropic properties and what he applies them to.

The discovery or invention of stainless steel has tremendous resonance in the modern world. There are many others to choose from. Some stories could be told by the engineer responsible, others from longer ago could be related by an insightful, modern engineer.

There will be intensely satisfying Eureka moments. It even happens in Mathematics: how many have heard how Poincare had his? He was working on a theory in complex functions and a massive insight came to him just as he stepped up onto the platform of a bus. Its connection to non-Euclidean geometry rose from his subconscious like the filmic Jaws from the sea. It’s the Arrêt De Bus Poincaré now.

Where is the Commissioning Editor – OK. – for Radio Four or BBC Four perhaps?


Follow the Money

Once upon a time, long before the title of a Chartered Engineer was even a twinkle in its Daddy’s eye, the MIMechE’s and the AMIMechE’s ruled the mechanical engineering roost, and the Institute of Mechanical Engineers required The Lad to study “The Engineer in Society”. They had in mind to make the tyro engineer look up from his drawing board and slide rule and to recognise that he needed to know that were other aspects to the world.

He had to learn about what motivated a work force. That he had to have scruples and not seek to diddle others. There were some economic aspects to engineering.

Stuff like that.

Nowadays, the Institutions and the Engineering Council rely on the Universities to cover that. Which they duly do, see

The Lad did not think that they had quite got it nailed then and still does not. The twin of or undercurrent to the profession is wider than that. It is Commerce. It goes as far back as engineering if you consider the Roman Empire with its civil engineering of aqueducts and its commerce across the Empire.

Others have said that an engineer is someone who makes something for a dollar that anyone can make for five dollars. Though over-simple, it emphasises an important point. For the real engineer, economics is intimately bound up with the physical forces with which he or she wrestles. Engineering is ancient but so also is the trading that generates the wealth that funds it.

The Assassination at Bruges

Bruges in the 1120’s was already an amazingly thriving and bustling centre of trade for the whole of Northern Europe. It generated new wealth where it traded in wool, cloth, furs and jewellery. Count Charles the Good was the man who administered the rule of law in all Bruges that so facilitated the storm of trade. You can be sure that, in this financial ferment, engineers would have been busy designing ships, harbours and port machinery to keep the pot boiling.

On Wednesday 2 March, 1127, the Count was assassinated leading to great fears about its effect on trade. We know that the terrible news reached the merchants in London in only 2 days having been carried a distance as the crow flies of 150 miles. This distance, mind, was entirely over the wintry, wild North Sea covered under sail; no mean feat even today. The Lad finds this so remarkable in that it was only 60 years after the Battle of Hastings and King Henry I was on the English throne.

The Seljuk Sultans

While Bruges was in the north east of Europe, in the far south east of Europe where it butted up against Asia, there were the Seljuk Turks. Their enlightened, tolerant government and culture was at its height in the mid-1200s. The Seljuk Empire spanned the ancient trade routes of Anatolia, the famous Silk Road, the camel trails along which the riches of Persia and China were carried to the markets of Europe, and vice-versa.

With trade came wealth, so the Seljuk sultans worked to encourage, increase and protect commerce by road. They improved roads and had their civil engineers and builders build hundreds of beautiful caravanserais to encourage trade with the east.

These huge stone buildings were made to shelter the caravaneers, their camels, horses and donkeys, and their cargoes, to keep them safe from highwaymen and to provide needed travel services.

The typical Seljuk caravanserai is a huge square or rectangular building with high walls of local stone. There are fine images at .

Through the main portal, you pass the room of the caravanserai’s manager and enter a large courtyard. Around the sides of the courtyard, built into the walls, are the service rooms: refectory, treasury, Turkish bath, repair shops, etc.

At the far end of the courtyard from the main portal is the grand hall, a huge vaulted hall usually with a nave and three side aisles. The hall is usually lit by slit windows in the stone walls and a cupola above the nave. The hall sheltered goods and caravaneers during bad winter weather.

Caravans were received into the caravanserai each evening, and were welcome to stay free for three days. Food, fodder and lodging were provided free of charge, funded by endowments courtesy of the building’s wealthy Seljuk founder who had also given money for the building’s construction and for its maintenance.

Our Twenty First Century Motorway Service Stations do not benefit from the comparison!

The Merchant of Prato and the Milanese

‘The Merchant of Prato: Francesco Di Marco Datini: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo’ is one of the earlier classics of the literature in this field of economic history. It tells how the Merchant began in 1350 his path to a commercial fortune. In 1350 Edward III was on the throne of England and was a power in Western Europe.

 “While kings and princes grappled and made alliances and betrayed and made other alliances, then grappled again, the merchants established their own quietly competent international estate.”

In another book ‘Hawkwood’ by Frances Stonor Saunders there is a pithy, summary of the situation only 10 years later.

Milan was favoured by the merchants who trafficked goods between Lombardy and the great fairs of Champagne and Lyon. It was the merchants who had organised the routes through the Alps, collaborating with local authorities to police the roads, erect bridges and establish posts high in the mountains where their members could find protection from weather and brigands.

All this was referring to Chaucerian times in and around the year 1360.

Note that Stonor goes on, in another accurate summary raising the shades of the contemporary engineers, to write

Milan’s trade was her lifeblood, and her bloody trade was arms, which evolved through access to locally produced iron, large quantities of charcoal from Alpine stands of timber, and the fast-flowing streams to operate tilt hammers and polishing mills.

The relationship of engineering to the Military-Industrial Complex of Eisenhower in the 20 Century foreshadowed here is an important topic that needs to be addressed in another post.


Merchants and commerce are those who engineer the economics of our world into some sort of working order. Then Banking and its offshoots of derivative trading appear and are tending to de-stabilise economic activity.

Despite this, just remember the intimate involvement of engineering and commerce. Argue, if you want, whether commerce is the tool of engineering or engineering is the tool of commerce. Alternatively, symbiosis could be argued. The Lad unsurprisingly holds strongly to the primacy of engineering.

STOP PRESS! – Free Power!

We interrupt this thread on the helicopter briefly to mention the latest saver of the Planet. The Searaser and some of its simpler engineering aspects.

This is another proposal for generating electricity in an environmentally friendly way. The media is again trumpeting it as encouraged by press releases.

The fact that the media say that it works like a bicycle pump does not induce confidence. The inventor’s backers Ecotricity  [] call it a double acting pump. It cannot be both. Virtually all bicycle pumps only push air into a tyre on the inward stroke; that is, it is single-acting. A double acting pump pushes its fluid both on the inward stroke and the outward stroke.

The Searaser is another oscillating device submerged in the friendly sea. The Unique Selling Point is that it generates its electricity on land to avoid electricity in the water. It is simple enough in principle. A large float at the sea surface bobs up and down with the waves. A rod attached to it passes down to a simple piston pump which is tethered to the sea floor by a cable.

The Lad has to wonder how reliable such an arrangement can be as it flops around in the turbulence of the open sea. The pump and the float will each be subject frequently to different forces tending to flex the assembly. Even if the float and pump themselves can withstand these forces without failure; the piston rod seal at the pump will see large leverage forces. They will tend to make it leak or, at the least, make for inefficiency due to high friction. What is the L/D ratio for the bearing?

Speaking of friction, how much power at the pump is wasted through friction losses pushing the water through pipes from the pumps miles out at sea all the way to the land and its power generating turbines?

Each pump cannot be scaled up beyond the scale set by the sea wave length. If it is built much bigger than, say, one or two wavelengths like a ship, it will become stable – like a ship – and not move up and down at all or very little.

Full engineering design and development details cannot be expected to be given in the press. It seems clear to The Lad though that there is a very long way to go before the engineering production model is workable. Even then the economics will still be an unconquered enemy.

Note also that a reservoir is needed on land at a suitable height. This is to provide enough potential energy to generate a useful amount of power whilst not needing too much pressure head. Too high a working pressure for the system will lead to even more design problems. The storage of water in the reservoir is also needed to smooth out the variations in pressure inherent with an oscillating pump and also to provide some back up for these days, and they undoubtedly exist even in the UK, when the waves are small or in a flat calm.

But again, how big will the reservoirs need to be for every pump farm to provide continuous power and not have its beneficiaries sitting in the dark. After all the UK weather is known to everyone to vary from day to day. There tends to be a comparable number of weather states that are “too much” or “too little” as there are that are “Goldilocks”.

The video shows the first model giving some squirts of water that are, not to put too fine a point on it, not very big. Perhaps that is the origin of the Bicycle Pump name. Later models seem to give a better flow rate, it has to be admitted. Nonetheless, still the supporters of such proposed systems still cannot show, even if they understand it, the gigantic amounts of unremitting, 24/7 power generated by the Base Load Power Stations for a modern society.

The Lad is aware of an existing water power generating scheme on a nearby, quietly flowing river. To see the amount and velocity of the outflow which generates only 150kW is a reality check on the water flow and plant required. This is how it can, more realistically, be done. Visit here to see something of it;  . The Lad has no connection at all with this small organisation.

So, assuming that much can be done to develop the system, how many fully-engineered assemblies would be needed to generate, say, a megawatt hour of electricity? What is the cost per unit of electricity from such assemblies at the Grid?


Super Puma Down – I

Without Warning?

It was April 1st 2009 and the Eurocopter Super Puma L2 helicopter was expecting to land at Aberdeen at 1314 hrs. This was still 20 minutes away but, at the 2000 feet cruising altitude, the coast landfall 10 miles away was just in sight.

Super Puma
The crashed helicopter was one like this

It was about half way through its busy schedule to and from the rigs that day, flying at nearly full speed with a full complement of 2 pilots and 14 passengers. The co-pilot radioed base that all was normal. Only twelve seconds later came two MAYDAY calls

Below, was a modern, powerful, rig supply ship, the ‘Normand Aurora’, on a so-far uneventful trip. Someone on watch on the bridge changed all that. It was good visibility and there was a shocked shout of alarm. Two miles away, the helicopter was hurtling into the sea with separated rotor following it. Then came the bangs, the black smoke and the explosion. The ship swung towards the smoke.

Normand Aurora
Normand Aurora was the nearest ship to the crash site and rushed to the rescue.


Launching their fast,-rescue inflatable. It hit the water with a loud slap and accelerated away. Leaving the mother ship quickly far behind as its helmsman gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and stiff-armed the throttle fully forward. He and his crew were desperate with hope that there would be something that they would be able to do: that there would be someone that they could help among the unfortunates in the helicopter cabin that had plummeted into the sea at high speed. But fearful at the same time. After the headlong two miles, its crew found a large circle of churning water. Within there were life rafts and debris. They also saw eight people; none were alive.

Epicyclic Gears

Planet gears recovered
Recovered from the sea bottom. Note the missing pinion at four o'clock.


Above are planet gears from the downed helicopter showing corrosion from their immersion in the sea. They are without an outer casing destroyed in the accident. There should be eight gears but it can be seen that one is missing. The destruction of the one, missing planet gear was the cause of the tragedy. Above shows only a part of the gear boxes and trains in the Super Puma [and other similar helicopters].

Had there been no advance warning of the impending catastrophe at all?

The drive shaft from each of the two engines in the helicopter runs at 23 000rpm [that is, the internals of each engine is rotating 380 times in one second or around 5 times as fast as a family car engine!]. The main rotor blades rotate at 265rpm. This means that the helicopter design engineer had to design a gear box to give a reduction of nearly a factor of 100. It has to fit in as small space and have as low a weight as possible.

When the designer needs to slow down the rate of rotation of a shaft by a large amount like this, she usually goes for an epicyclic gear design. These are commonly known as a sun and planet gear sets. This is what is found in a Super Puma between the fast spinning engines the relatively slowly rotating main rotor.

This epicyclic design was shown in the textbooks of The Lad like this, and similar diagrams are still shown today.

Textbook diagram
The textbook version is rather lightweight compared to the real thing.


In real life where very large power has to be transmitted in as small a space as possible, there are more planet gears than in the textbook diagram. They fill the circumference and each is wide and massive. Such planets of half of the Super Puma epicyclic gear train are shown in the salvage photograph above.

To see how designers calculate the variables in a real design of epicyclic gears see –

Magnetic Chip Detectors

Even though the designers seek to make engines and gearboxes as reliable and free from the risk of components failing as possible there is still a need to keep a check on machinery health. For a Power Station generator or a car engine there is no great, inherent problem to be anticipated if it rapidly comes to a halt after 30 sec of noisy running. It is quite a different problem if the engine is powering an aircraft flying several miles high over the ocean. Here a significant risk of such a sudden stop is not acceptable. They must head off such failures before they happen. They must search for signs of any problems well in advance.

The magnetic chip detector is one of the neat ideas that help maintenance teams do this. It is a simple concept. Many of the most highly stressed components are made of steel which is magnetic. One of the commonest symptoms of failure, when such a component wears or suffers fatigue cracking, is that chips of metal are generated and released from the parent component. The oil, as it is circulated throughout the engine, washes such chips away and usually takes it to the lowest part of the engine. En route, if it washes over a single small magnet, it will be captured by the magnet. The maintenance team simply unscrew the magnets at regular intervals and an early alarm can be raised if any chips are found sticking to the magnet.

Such detectors are positioned at various places within the engine oil flow where any chips may be washed over them. An alternative design is to provide twin magnets close together. Coupled to this type of device is a power supply and electronic detector to signal to the helicopter pilots, even in flight, when a chip bridges the two magnets. Such a design is shown below.

Chip detector
This is the operating principle of the more capable design that can provide a signal in flight


There are many such detectors designed into the Super Puma. Several are in the vicinity of the main gear box. The design of such detectors is another one of the many examples of the nexus where the design principle of “simple and reliable” approaches close to the principle of “too crude for the risk burden”. The designer has to consider which is the truth in every such case. Did the detectors work this time or not? If not, why not? See the next post.

Memento Mori

Engineering turns the forces to the benefit of mankind and the results have immense consequences. These consequences are, on the whole, beneficial but sadly, as with any efforts of the human race, for some individuals can be malign.

Bloody skirmishes to understand each way that a structure can fail and to avoid them all are a repetitive feature in engineering history. For ordinary structures most of the skirmishes have been avoided and, nowadays, fewer new ones appear. But fresh demons occasionally burst forth to confound us in new campaigns to complete new tasks or use new materials. When they do, they extract their price in blood or treasure.

Professional engineers have to be continually alert. The engineer knows that the nature of her or his work usually brings great benefit. But it can, also on occasion, bring tragedy.

So it was with G-REDL on 1st April 2009.

RIP deceased

Engineers’ responsibility

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

A pinch of Chemical Engineering

A live, engineering topic in this environmentally conscious time is how to reduce the carbon footprint of the various methods of producing electrical power; coal, oil, nuclear, wind, tidal and so on.

Coal fired power stations are regarded as very polluting because an unavoidable by product of the combustion of coal is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas widely regarded as bad for the environment.

There are, though, apparently still large reserves of coal globally available close to some regions with a high demand for power. For other areas further away it is economically transportable. The extraction cost is quite reasonable compared to some other sources of energy. If the emissions problem could be solved there would be some potential economic benefit if coal could be used. Thus it is that some projects are looking at ways to reduce or eliminate the problem of carbon dioxide emissions.

Diagram from

The whole carbon cycle including CCS

This is where the idea of Carbon Capture and Sequestration [commonly known as CCS] comes from. See the diagram above. This project, or series of alternative projects, will have many problems in addition to the engineering ones. However the engineering is what will feature in a simple way in this post. The project, as does the engineering, has two flavours although they overlap a bit: petroleum engineering and chemical engineering.

What is this CCS; what does it need to do? Whole textbooks and complete journals of technical research papers can and will be devoted to the projects. In this post we can only touch upon the first, major challenges in the simplest possible way. The Lad is using his engineering judgement and that without close experience of the problems. He apologises to the engineers struggling in the field if he does not do justice to their work. Please add your comments and enlighten us.

The carbon capture phase is one of chemical engineering whilst the sequestration draws upon much oil-drilling technology, which is petroleum engineering.

The gas fumes normally pour from the Power Station chimney as a fast-flowing mixture of carbon dioxide, CO2, and many other gases and particulates. From this we must remove the CO2. We could scrub the fumes in some fluid. Try an analogy here. You pour sugar [equivalent to the CO2] into a cup of tea [the scrubbing] and the sugar dissolves. Imagine that the sugar also bonds with the tea molecules. This is equivalent to passing the gas fumes and grabbing all the CO2 and holding it back whilst the remainder continues on. That’s easy enough with tea and sugar and not quite so easy with CO2. But that’s only the start of what the engineer has to arrange.

Now she has to get the sugar out of the tea again. That’s stripping the CO2 out again. That’s carbon capture and quite a clever trick but chemical engineers perform clever tricks all the time. Then there’s the sequestration. All you have got to do is to take the CO2 somewhere and bury it. How does this grab you? Say, drive it out to the middle of the North Sea – and The Lad means DRIVE it using a lot of power – and 10000ft down.

Think of doing all this at a rate of about 2000 tons an hour. Do it reliably and without hesitation for every hour. 24/7. This is for 1000tons of coal per hour, taking from the atmosphere and binding to a similar amount of oxygen. This is for one power station alone. There are, of course, other power stations.

Engineers have faced bigger problems. Not many, The Lad admits, but some. Think of Nuclear Power Stations, big bridges, rockets to the Moon and back, and tunnels. Your modern group of engineers on being presented with this project will smile slowly. “OK.” they’ll say, “Let us at it” They are facing their old enemy: the forces of nature in several of their myriad forms. They have to overcome forces to pull the CO2 out of the flue gas. Then overcome those forces again to pull the CO2 back out again after the stripping process. Then they have to force again the CO2underground into the tiny pores in some rock.

Stripping is taking a lot of power to achieve. Problem one is to need to use less power than the Power Station is generating. The Lad supposes that that’s obvious enough. Well, obvious or not it does not make it easy to achieve. If it takes a lot of power to do, maybe they will try to find a catalyst to reduce the required power. In many chemical processes where compounds interact beneficially it may, naturally, proceed quite slowly. However, some chemical compounds speed up the process solely by their presence and, by the end of the process, are still present and unchanged. You could regard such catalysts as being a form of lubrication of the process. There is a catalyst in your car doing a similar job to clean up your exhaust [but not CO2]. And that is platinum or something similarly expensive.

The Lad is willing to bet about another of the problems. Problem two is, he is willing to bet, the process will need high pressure to work. The engineer tries to design such chemical plant out of steel because it is less expensive than most other materials. So add to that, Problem three. CO2 frequently morphs into carbonic acid which is nasty and corrosive to most steels. Unless you take great care in designing your plant pressure vessels and piping, this is like taking a pin to a balloon.

Most of the mentions in the media so far have told me only that sequestration consists of putting the carbon into porous rock underground. There is nothing on the carbon capture phase of the process. The media do not have engineers, you see. They do not understand much of the problem. Correction, they do not understand any of the problem.

One Bing ref is

This is from ‘World Resources Institute, a US based ‘thinktank’. They claim that they are independent. The WRI first  video mainly [most of the 5 min video – but not all] speaks of the injection process, not of the capture and sequestration processes and any difficulties thereof.

Of course another is

Also project funded partly by EU and many other Big Oil and other companies, called CO2Remove. Link to this is [could not link to this – try again later!!!!]

is a 5 yr study project funded by the European Commission under the Sixth Framework Programme

This study project is coming to an end with a Feb 2012conference in France.

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.





A step in the long road.

Give thanks to the Sunday Times in the 23 October 2011 issue, or more especially Joe Watson of Swansea, for a letter that moves a little way down the road. That is the road to an understanding of engineering reality by the general public and those thinking about choosing a career.

Mr Watson rightly chides a previous writer for suggesting that engineering is a manual job. His own definition of the properties of an engineer is hard to better. The engineer is a ‘graduate who has competence in physics, mathematics, IT and design – to mention a few’. This is not true of the tradesmen or women who are the artisans. While this tells us what they are, and is fine as far as it goes, it does not tell us what the engineer actually does. But, fair do’s, it is progress.

Why, though, is such a simple definition still necessary in the modern world? Think about this. The distinctions between patients, doctors and nurses and even finer graduations such as Registrar or consultant seem to be quite clear to everyone. The Police uniformed branches and its sub-branches compared to the detectives are well-known. Is it because each of those professions is the subject of a vast number of programmes on television? Is that the reason: people learn through the TV stories?

The Lad will not support this as he does not want to encourage the already over-mighty, super-confident denizens of that medium. No, the ignorance is more likely to be because the general public does not normally come into any contact with engineers in person or read about them. Yet, for goodness’ sake, they come into contact with their products every hour of every day. Perhaps this blog will add a few bricks so that the profession rises into view a little more.

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

Get it right on Site

Something has come up. It means that we must re-visit the post on the old and new diggers.

The trigger for this was the comparison drawn by The Lad between the old, 1935 Quarry Shovel and one modern machine that JCB, its maker, calls a Tracked Shovel. The Lad is not a student specifically of heavy earth movers so he made a couple of assumptions as he wrote the post. One assumption was that if a particular design was in a museum; it no longer, shall we say, appeared in the wild. The second assumption was that a large manufacturer of current modern earth movers will produce all the different types.

A little further browsing soon showed both to be in error. Caterpillar Inc is a very large, US based company specialising in Mining equipment. Its catalogue soon revealed to the surprised gaze of The Lad the error of assuming that the Museum machine had become extinct. There were some machines they now called Electric Rope Shovels. Here are some pictures that you can find along with much more data at .

The smallest of this type of Caterpillar machine


The Big Brother of the Caterpillar family

This machine handles 90tons



Look familiar? Apart from the trebling or even quadrupling in size [note the size of the control cabins in all three and the access stairway in the third machine], these modern machines are still of the same design or general architecture as The Abbey Pumping Station Museum Steam Navvy. The increase in size of these modern machines brings with it a major increase in strength. The machine in the first image above is the smallest of the range and the load capacity of the dipper is 20 tonnes whilst that in the third image is the largest and its payload is a mere 120 tons. The latter machine itself weighs in at well over 1000 tons.

The market for such machines across the globe is probably not large and so accounts for the second assumption of the previous post being in error as such an enthusiastically commercial company as JCB declines to make such machines. Engineers still have to operate and try to turn an honest profit in the global marketplace.

The engineering aspects of the replacement of steam with hydraulic rams for machines of the size of the Ruston Bucyrus Quarry Shovel of 1935 is, however, still absolutely true. But there is more to it than that. First of all we have to be clear that those two machines – old and new – were not designed for the same objectives.

It is surpassingly vital that, in whatever project the engineer is pursuing, she is very clear as to her objectives. It frequently needs a lot of effort to get them right. If they are not right then the project can fail altogether or at least be mired in confusion. If there is neither of those two outcomes, it may become too expensive for what it does. In this latter case a good piece of jargon is to be ‘not cost-effective’. This piece of jargon was introduced by Robert McNamara, once of CEO of the Ford Motor Co in the US, and later Secretary of Defence for President Kennedy. He attempted to bring a scientific approach to Defence procurement and thus had a considerable effect on President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, the US Defence industry] , .

However, The Lad is getting side-tracked again: let us return to the diggings.

The old machine reigned in quarries and opencast mines. It had as its objective the removal of large quantities of the ore which is the stuff that you want – pay dirt. Or, first, the overburden, which is the dirt or rock covering the ore.

The new Tracked Excavator has as its main design objectives a somewhat different type of task. It is to carry out landscaping [shall we say – engineering of the shape of an area of land] or carving out trenches. Its workplace is the brown or green-field of a building site; the route of a new road. That is not to say that it cannot turn its hand to removing ore or overburden it is just that it is not designed exclusively for this task.

The modern Electric Rope Shovel also has as its home the quarry and open-cast mine although many of these are now much larger than they used to be in the first half of the Twentieth Century. This, of course is the driver of the design of the modern Cat machines. Why do they not use hydraulic rams? There will be a limit to the operationally effective length of a hydraulic ram due to its method of manufacture. The Lad does not know for certain, but he suspects that it is limited by the size of grinding machines for the bores and rods of the ram. [Perhaps someone will comment and correct him if necessary.] If the machine design needs to exceed that limit, then other methods have to be used or, perhaps in this case, sticking with the old ones. The Lad believes that the geometry of the jibs and big machines required rams too long for effective manufacture and the pull of cables became a good principle to retain. With the use of cables, the original architecture was not easily bettered.

Then there is the ‘electric’ of the title Electric Rope Shovel. It is electric powered too. The prime mover is not mounted on board and lugged around. It is firmly ground based somewhere in the mine. It will be large, heavy – and efficient – power generator. Power is supplied to the Shovel by cable.

Beware as an engineer of assumptions. The Lad does not say that in the day-to-day engineering assumptions will never be made. Sometimes to allow the job to proceed, they have to be made. Just make sure that they are robust. Then, never let the assumptions drift on as correct; check their correctness properly as soon as possible.

Caterpillar Inc has just this year completed a takeover of another earthmoving machine firm. It was that firm, not Caterpillar Inc, which designed this giant Shovel. The name of that other firm was? Bucyrus. Does the name ring a bell? It is the US company that licensed the UK firm Ruston in the 1930’s to build the 52B Steam Quarry Shovel.

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

The emergence of Civilisation

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race.

You may have noticed this sentence newly in the previous post on the ‘Steam Navvy’. Perhaps you even exploded with fury at the arrogance of it.

The Lad decided that the blog needed a footer to go with each post to express the blog philosophy as concisely as possible

He struggled to express in the few sentences at the end of each Blog as much as possible of what is important. Guiding and offering teaching discussion points and also informing non-engineers are obvious target audiences. But the other question is ‘Why?’.

He concluded that it was because engineering is one of the three primary endeavours. The primary endeavours, in The Lad’s definition, are those that have most benefited the human race from the very beginning. They began their influence as early as when Lucy [Australopithecus afarensis] roamed the savannahs and they remain influential still. What are they?

Agriculture, Medicine, and Engineering.

Engineering deserves a lot of media exposure and this blog is a small contribution. By Engineering, perforce in the earliest days, The Lad means Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering

As every engineer knows, there is an optimum number of legs supporting a structure so that it is firm however uneven the ground. The structure of civilisation grew steadily on the basis of Agriculture, Medicine, and Engineering. That is why The Lad calls those specialities the Tripod of Civilisation. He hopes that he has avoided bathos.