Tuesday, December 23, 2014

At the Top of Hendey Towers

ARCHIMEDES: “Give me a stick long enough and a pivot, and I shall move the world."

PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOURNAL:  Essentially, Archimedes was saying that if we can overlook certain disadvantages, two times two can equal eight through “mechanical advantage." In fact, the world has moved far since the time of Archimedes, leveraged by ideas. Pascal saw that leveraging ideas was the power of God. 

Here, at the top of one of the Hendey towers is the old electric lift elevator. Archimedes was also reputed to have made the first. However, the need to lift things beyond our capacity is at least as old as Stone Henge. Oxen, elephants and slaves were replaced by screw type elevators, hydraulics, pneumatics, and steam, but it was Frank Sprague’s electrical motor that finally gave elevators a lift. Frank Sprague was born in Milford, Connecticut.

There was an aha moment for me in eleventh grade physics class when the teacher demonstrated that an electric motor, linkages and gears aside, was still a leveraging system. Fill it with electric power and you leverage spin; spin it and you leverage electrical power. Frank Sprague not only figured out how to harness the magnetic properties of electrical fields by making the first practical electric motors and dynamos, but he pioneered two chief applications for his idea. Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company built the first practical street car system in Richmond, Virginia, and many subsequent systems everywhere. The company was eventually purchased by Thomas Edison. Afterward, Sprague Electric Elevator Company pioneered elevator systems. When the company had proven the system’s efficiencies over old style hydraulic lifts, it was purchased by Otis Elevator.

The invention of the electric motor leveraged space and labor in countless ways we barely think about. From plumbing to subways to freezers it has changed our houses, our cities, our world. Electrical motors are one of many levers we’ve used to gain dominion over space and time while accumulating unobserved disadvantages.

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