Archive№ 1 July 2018
Making the Impossible Possible
Every technological breakthrough is made to meet a need. Success needs more than a brilliant idea: it needs contact between the inventor and real or potential customers. Such feedback from the user to the inventor often produces remarkable results.
Henry Bessemer was a British inventor with as many as a hundred patents to his name by the age of 40. In 1854 he invented a new type of artillery shell, cylindrical in shape with grooves on its surface. The compressed gases generated when the gun was fired were forced along the grooves, causing the projectile to rotate rapidly.
The weapon was tested at the proving ground at Vincennes under the supervision of Major Claude Mignet. At the request of the government authorities, which were interested in the new armament, he asked Bessemer: "Can guns be made that are strong enough for such heavy shells?" That simple remark, said Bessemer, without undue modesty, was "the spark which kindled one of the greatest revolutions that the present century has to record."
Steel production using the Bessemer process, engraving, 1886
Less than a month later, he announced his first patent for a new method of producing steel. Bessemer built a pear-shaped vessel in which a large mass of molten iron was converted into ductile steel by blowing air through it. The air caused oxidation of the impurities in the iron (silicon, manganese and carbon). The principal advantage of the new method was simplicity and speed: the Bessemer process took only a few minutes to complete.
The discovery of the Bessemer process for the production of steel marks the start of the second industrial revolution. But the leap forward was also driven by a new source of energy-refined products of crude oil. One of the innovators in this new field was the Petroleum Production Company Nobel Brothers, Limited, often shortened to "Branobel" [from the Russian "brat’ya Nobel ("Nobel Brothers"), since the Nobel family, originally of Swedish origin, were based and did their business in the Russian Empire].
The first Russian oil pipeline and the world’s first cylindrical oil storage tanks were built to the Nobels’ order. Also thanks to the Nobels, Russia was the first country in the world to use a diesel engine to power a ship. At their request, Russian engineers radically altered the design of the engine [invented by the German Rudolf Diesel], so it could run on a range of different fuels (Diesel’s first engines ran on plant oils or light petroleum products). The success of Diesel’s invention at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 was partly due to news that the Nobel engineering manufacture in St. Petersburg had started to produce a variant of his engine that could run on crude oil.
Steel working and oil refining as we understand them today date from the second industrial revolution and drove the development of many other industries. However, there is another technology, without which the evolution of modern industry would have been impossible – electrical power.
The first power stations produced only enough electricity for local electric lighting schemes. At that time, the technology to transmit electrical energy over large distances did not exist, so the generator could not be located further than 1,500 metres from the consumer. But land in the centre of large cities was expensive, businessmen were unwilling to bear that kind of expense and, plainly, it was impracticable to build a separate generating facility close to each new consumer.
The Niagara hydraulic power, engraving, 1896 год
The power stations only had one consumer – electric lighting, almost all of it provided by the incandescent lamps invented by Thomas Edison. It was direct current, of which the American Edison was a fierce proponent. However, demand for electricity grew rapidly and new consumers, including industrial consumers, appeared. It soon became apparent that only a system using alternating current and transformers would allow the transmission of electricity from a large centralised generator over large distances to a range of customers. The first large-scale power station generating alternating current was built in 1896 in the USA. The Niagara hydraulic power plant had a capacity of 37 megawatts. Contemporaries called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World".
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