Navigating a changing environment
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The Rocket — winner of the Rainhill Trials

Marc Seguin, a French inventor and industrialist, made the breakthrough leading to the development of the first practical steam locomotive. Credit for the invention of railways goes to English engineers who worked during the first decades of the 19th century. The Rainhill Trials was a defining event in the history of railways. The father and son team of George and Robert Stephenson won the competition with their steam locomotive, named “The Rocket,” but they relied on an innovative new boiler design patented by Marc Seguin in the previous year.

The Rainhill Trials was held to demonstrate the feasibility of the steam-powered locomotive. The technology of the steam engine had been in use for over 100 years at the time of the competition, but it was used almost entirely as a source of power for machines fixed in place, such as in mines and factories. Adapting this technology for transportation, in boats or wheeled vehicles, required shrinking the machinery by about a factor of 10 without too much reduction in the already modest power output of these engines. …


Report card goals relate to benefits provided by coexisting natural ecosystems and human-built infrastructure.

The Ohio River is a working river. That thought occurred to me as I watched the barges glide past the window during the Ohio River report card workshop. A team of IAN science communicators spent two days across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in December 2013. We were there to gather information from experts on the Ohio and Tennessee River basins as one step toward developing a report card for the entire Mississippi River watershed. This report card will be different from others we have worked on that grade ecosystem health, like the Chesapeake Bay report card. …


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George Stephenson, from Samuel Smiles biography of him

In 1857, the English author Samuel Smiles introduced the literary world to a new breed of man — the eminent engineer. The occasion was the publication of Smiles’ biography of George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer who played a singular role in creating the railroad industry in England. Smiles’ biography of Stephenson proved to be so successful that he went on to write biographies of several other eminent English engineers. These were later compiled and republished under the title “Lives of the Engineers.”

In writing Stephenson’s biography, Smiles took the approach of telling the story of the man through his works. And so, Smiles filled his book with extensive detail on the development of the steam locomotive and the early history of the building of the railroads. Perhaps more that any other technologic development around the middle of the 19th century, the railroad brought revolutionary changes to the structure of society and to the lives of everyday people. Smiles wrote Stephenson’s biography to inform people of the “origin and progress of the railway system.” …


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No one knew better than Pierre Louis Frédéric Sauvage that innovation cannot be rushed, even when its eventual course is clear. Sauvage has perhaps the greatest claim, among several competitors, to the invention of the ships’ propeller. In the earliest days of steam power, in the mid-18th century, steam-powered vessel where driven by cumbersome paddle wheels designed to crawl across the surface of the water. By contrast, the propeller draws itself through the water just as a screw draws itself into a piece of wood.

In 1752 the mathematician Bernouli suggested in 1752 that a propellor-like device would provide greater propulsive force from the same engine. Another French inventor patented the design of a vessel using screw propulsion in 1803, but it was Sauvage, 29 years later, who produced a working prototype with which the propoellor’s theoretical advantage could be tested. …


The greatest challenge of climate change for water managers is how do we maintain cooperation and trust in the face of broken promises.

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South Florida Water Management District’s S-12 structure delivers water promised to Everglades National Park.

Water management is one of the activities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Changes in precipitation and
drought, the loss of glaciers, and accelerating sea level rise affect the water supplies, threats from flooding, and the hydrologic processes that sustain natural ecosystems. But, even more vulnerable are our water management institutions and the laws and agreements they administer, such as basin compacts and trans-boundary treaties.

To put it simply, because of climate change, we can no longer honor many of the promises that we have made to each other. …


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Henri Victor Regnault approached scientific experimentation as an interrogation of Nature in pursuit of truth. Regnault inherited an aptitude for math and science and manual skill from his father, who was an engineer in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. Graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1832, Regnault was on track to become a mining engineer. However, his talents soon brought him back to the chemistry laboratory, first as an assistant in Berthier’s laboratory at the Ecole de Mines and later as Gay-Lussac’s junior colleague on staff of the Ecole Polytechnique. …


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Louis Lebègue Duportail’s seige of Yorktown was the decisive victory in the American Revolution.

Popular histories of the American Revolution tell the story of George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army prevailing over a better trained and better equipped British foe. Washington’s advantage was the common sense and native inventiveness of men educated at the practical school of the American frontier. However, the deciding event of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, was fought as a classic siege campaign taken straight out of the playbook written by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the French military genius. Therefore, the success of the American Revolution owed much to the engineering education provided at the French Royal Military Academy.

Soon after the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Paris to obtain whatever support France would provide. Engineering talent was high on Franklin’s wish list. There were no engineering schools in America, and knowledge of how to construct and defeat military defenses was in short supply. So, it developed that four young military engineers were sent to America, in secret, even before Franklin concluded negotiations for financial and military support from the government of Louis XVI.


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Polonceau’s design for the Pont du Carrousel featured hollow cast iron arches constructed around a laminated wooden core.

Antoine-Rémy Polonceau revolutionized the design and construction of bridges and roads, two activities at the historical roots of the engineering profession. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1796, Polonceau joined the corps of Ponts et Chaussées, literally “bridges and roads.” These were engineers employed by the state to carry out essential public works in France.

Polonceau’s first major task was building roads across France’s border with Italy through the Alps, which had strategic national importance. Over his career, Polonceau’s work engaged him on a topics ranging from hailstones to factories and waterways. Polonceau introduced to France the Macadam system for paving streets, which used crushed stone, sealed with rock dust, and rolled smooth. …


The world has changed radically over the 300-year life of the engineering profession, but the characteristics desired in an engineer have not.

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Vauban was the leading engineer in France at the beginning of the 18th century. (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vauban.jpg)

The birth of engineering as a profession occurred at the end of the 17th century, when Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban organized French engineers into an elite corps to serve the king, Louis XIV. The term “engineer” appears, perhaps for the first time in print, in 1765 as an entry in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia. The word derives from the old Latin ingenium, which refers to natural capacity or talent.

Membership in the corps of engineers provided social status, financial security, and a predictable path to advancement. In the middle of the 18th century, young engineers received one or two years of classroom training at one of three specialized schools, followed by several years of practical training under the guidance of senior engineers. …


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Clément Ader’s Avion III, a steam-powered aircraft built for the French military in 1897

If you impulsively take things apart to see how they work, then the Musée des Arts et Métiers is the place for you. This museum holds a collection of mechanical models, scientific instruments, and industrial bric-a-brac used to train engineers for the industrial revolution during first half of the 19th century. Established as a strategic national resource in 1794, the collection served as a 3-dimensional encyclopedia for students of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, a hands-on reference and source of inspiration for inventors and industrial designers.

Later, a gothic cathedral next to the school was converted into a theater for public demonstrations. Today, this houses the museum, where visitors can see all manner of devices, from Clément Ader’s pioneering bat-winged airplane, to automatons — robots — from the 1700s, to elegant laboratory instruments used to make the first laboratory measurements of the speed of light in 1850. …

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