Definitely a good idea!

Form follows function!

Here is a row of anchors, which I photographed in Greenwich in the UK. You’ll note the one in the foreground has a single fluke (as the pointy ends of an anchor are called). The sign says this anchor is from around 1820.

Single fluke anchor

So why would they produce an anchor with only one fluke, when most of them have two? For a very good reason.

This model was used in permanent ship moorings in shallow waters. Think of the ship floating above the anchor. Think of the falling tide. Think what will happen if the ships comes down too close to an upward-pointing fluke…

That’s why!

    How many engineers?

    See the mechanic working on my Renault Clio.

    Do you know what he’s doing? Looks like he’s trying to squeeze his arm into a tiny space between some metal beams in the engine compartment frame. Why is he doing that? Because he wants to replace a burned out light bulb in the headlamp assembly.

    Renault Clio lamp change

    Actually I carry spare lamps in the trunk, so I thought I could change the bulb myself. But after a long struggle I decided to take the car in to a garage shop, in the hope that the mechanic there could solve the riddle: how do you access the headlamp’s back side and extract the lamp?

    Why, what’s the problem? Here is the problem:

    Clio-Lamp-access.jpg

    The headlamp is wedged in behind the tube with the yellow cap, and is practically impossible to reach without disassembling the metal beam behind it. Yep… Renault designed this car so you need to take it apart to change a light bulb.

    How many design engineers does it take to make it impossible to unscrew a light bulb?

      An elegant hydraulic calculator

      Robert Owen Wynne-Roberts, MICE (Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers), FRSI (Fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute), was a talented civil engineer. He passed away in 1935, but at least one result of his engineering talent abides: the Wynne-Roberts hydraulic calculator, a specialty circular slide rule for computing flow in water pipes and sewers.

      Wynne-Roberts' Hydraulic Calculator

      You can read about this elegantly packaged device in a new article on my history of computing site.

        Form and Materials: swords of yesteryear

        Form follows function; but often both must follow the available materials.

        Consider the image that comes to mind at a statement like

        The great king raised his mighty sword to smite his enemies.

        Surely, you imagine a sword structured something like this:

        Sword

        Photo courtesy Søren Niedziella, shared on flickr under CC license.

        This, after all, is just about what a proper King’s sword would have to look like to serve him well.

        Right?

        Well, how about this instead?

        Khopesh sword

        Photo courtesy Dbachmann, shared on Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

        Would you recognize this as a sword? If you were an Egyptian or Mesopotamian soldier some 4000 years ago, you certainly would. In fact, this was what a standard battle sword looked like between 2000 and 1300 BC. This one, missing its hilt at the right end, is from 1750 BC.

        These weapons were in use across the ancient near east, and were called Khopesh in Egyptian. Their only sharpened edge was the outer side of the curved part at the left. You used this edge to beat on people, much like you’d use a club; stabbing was not even an option.

        So, what’s going on here? A sword should be long, thin, sharp and pointy, so you can stick it into people at arm’s length; why make one that looks like a short, thick, bent metal rod that can only be used to clobber your enemies?

        This is where a key fact comes in: we’re talking Bronze Age, when iron (and much less steel) was unavailable. Weapon designers were constrained by a metal that was too soft for anything long and thin; nor would it stay sharp for long. A one-sided “sickle sword” like the Khopesh could have a thick backside that would give the bronze both durability and hitting momentum.

        Over the years the design varied somewhat; notably the sharp part grew longer at the expense of the handle, as in the sword below:

        Khopesh sword

        Incidentally, I wasn’t kidding about the king: below you see a PR image of Ramesses III smiting his enemies with a curved sword just like this one. He grabs the smaller-than-life enemies by the hair and is ready to smite them with the sword’s edge (the kings of those days, unlike today’s ornamental ones, were pretty hands-on where smiting was concerned). In fact, this image makes sense of the fact that “smite” is defined in the dictionary as “to strike with a heavy blow or blows” – strike, not skewer as with later sword designs. The guy on the right is more than a king – he is the Akkadian God Nergal, no less, and he holds a sickle sword in his left hand, its blade resting on the ground.

        Ramesses III and Nergal

        But then came the iron age, and it became possible to craft sharp long blades that wouldn’t break; and the bronze Khopesh went the way of the flint axe, doomed by a new technology that enabled new forms and new functionality.

        That’s Progress for you…

          A truly uncool armrest design

          Back from vacation, having flown a Boeing 737. This lacked the personalized screens seen in longer haul craft but it had a headset jack and a set of volume and channel controls for each passenger. The controls were set in the armrest, in easy reach of the passenger, like this:

          Boeing B-737 armrest audio controls

          Cool, huh?

          Not cool. The two rocker switches for the volume control and channel selector are flush with the surface of the armrest. This means that if you rest your arm on the thing – or if your neighbor in the next seat does – your channel is bound to skip up or down every few minutes. If you watch a movie this can get truly aggravating.

          And all they had to do was recess the controls a couple of millimeters under the surface…

            A curious slide rule design

            For some reason, inventors in the first half of the 20th century thought that incorporating a slide rule into a mechanical pencil was a great idea. In reality, these combination devices were of dubious utility, gives their low precision as calculators… but they are certainly ingeniously designed.

            Pencil Sliderules

            I describe three of them,  including one extremely rare device, in a new article on my history of computing site.

            Enjoy!

              How cool is that?!

              Evolution has crafted some amazing design solutions to the problems of life, and I never have enough of their elegance.

              Take the crocodile’s heart.

              Crocodile

              Crocodiles have a special bypass short circuiting blood flow to their lungs. Specifically, although they have the same four chambered heart configuration as us mammals, which pumps the blood first to the lungs to get oxygenated and then to the body to use that Oxygen, they have a special hole – the Foramen of Panizza – that connects the blood vessels leaving the heart’s two ventricles so that blood can flow from one circuit to the other without visiting the lungs. What’s more – and this is the cool part – in some species, a special valve enables the short circuit only during prolonged diving, when the lungs are useless anyway.

              Is that cool, or what?!

                Ingenious design sighting at Heathrow

                Here is a bit of outstandingly smart design I saw in Terminal Five at London Heathrow airport.

                Heathrow Terminal 5 signTo fully appreciate the ingenuity, you should know that there are two security inspection areas (you know, where they check your shoes and X-Ray your hand luggage): Security North and Security South. Both serve the same function, and they’re located a minute’s walk apart in this huge hall.

                What this real-time information sign (and the similar one at the South area) does, is tell you that right now, you’ll be much better off to make that one minute trek, because the other area has a much shorter line.

                Neat!

                 

                  My Dad’s tin suitcase

                  My father, God rest his soul, was a young physics student when Israel’s war of independence broke out, and he was among the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the quarter fell to the superior forces of the Jordanian Legion, he was taken prisoner and spent 9 months in a POW camp near Mafraq in Transjordan.

                  When he came back he brought with him a humble but interesting artifact: a small suitcase, about the size of a modern carry-on, made entirely of tinplate. This survived to this day, and has an interesting story to tell.

                  Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

                  My father, it turns out, had ample time on his hands in that camp, and he devoted it to studying Physics (he was to become a Physics professor for the rest of his life) and to teaching it to any of the other prisoners who found it preferable to doing nothing. In return, one unnamed prisoner used his skill as a tinsmith to produce this suitcase for my Dad.

                  The source of the material is obvious if you turn the thing over:

                  Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

                  This was a standard tin of biscuits, provided to the camp’s residents either by the Jordanians or by some welfare organization. They must’ve been rather stale, as they date to 1945, but in war you aren’t choosy; meanwhile the empty tin was recycled into this suitcase.

                  The craftsmanship and attention to detail in this item is wonderful indeed, considering the difficult conditions of its manufacture. The potentially sharp edges are all doubled up for safety and convenience. There is a folding handle, hinges, even a hasp – and everything is made from tinplate and steel wire. Here are some photos of the details:

                  Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

                  Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

                  Tinplate suitcase from POW camp

                  Good job, unknown tinker!

                   

                    The little details… bless ‘em!

                    When I was QA manager in an Intel fabrication plant I had this Honda Acura ad copy stuck to my cubicle partition:

                    To fully appreciate the precision that goes into our 24-valve, 2.7 liter, 161-horsepower engine, touch the ashtray.

                    And indeed, a quality product – be it a car or a flashlight – reflects its quality in attention to every detail. Every now and then I run into such a small detail where the designers went the extra mile to make a better product, and it makes my day.

                    Clock

                    Take this clock I recently bought. It’s a standard wall clock, with the usual battery operated quartz movement, meant to be hung on a wall by use of a screw.

                    Back of clockBut when I turned it over I found the screw, affixed to a specially molded clip on the back of the clock. Of course it costs the same to make the unit with or without the clip, and the nylon bag they saved costs nothing anyway; but only one maker in a hundred would bother to pay attention to such a detail.

                    Made my day!