I Hear the Train a Comin’

Hallidie U.S. Patent 110,971For more than two centuries, trains have traversed the American landscape altering how and where people live and work. This is why, in 2008, Amtrak created National Train Day to be celebrated on the Saturday closet to May 10th, the anniversary of the pounding of the Golden Spike in Promontory, Utah which marked the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

The first locomotive was built in 1804 by a Cornish inventor named Richard Trevithick. It was powered by steam. A steam locomotive burns fuel, usually coal. The heat then passes though tubes inside a large water-filled boiler creating steam. The steam then passes through high-pressure tubes to cylinders which engage piston rods connected to the locomotive’s wheels, thus driving the train.1

The steam engine remained popular until the early 1900s when diesel and electric began replacing it. A German mechanical engineer, Rudolf Diesel, invented the diesel-powered locomotive. A diesel engine operates when a cylinder piston squeezes and heats air trapped inside; at the top of the stroke, the system injects oil; the air and oil mixture burns and drives the piston down which turns a crankshaft connected to a generator making eletricity for storage in large batteries. The wheels are powered by motors that draw from the batteries. 2

On January 17, 1871, Andrew Smith Hallidie, an American engineer and inventor, was granted a patent for an “improvement in endless wire ropeways” which became the basis for the first cable car system.3 Soon, however, electricity changed city transportation. In 1897, Boston opened an electric subway system. New York City soon followed in 1904. The all-electric locomotive requires either an overhead pickup or a third-rail carrying a high-voltage of electricity to power the engine. Electric trains are easier and cheaper to maintain and last longer than diesels.4

Now coming down the track are hybrid trains which use a battery to store energy temporarily for when the train is idling or stationary; “bullet trains” which run on steel rails at accelerated speeds; magnetic levitation trains which hover above rails suspended by powerful magnets; and the futuristic Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s vision for transporting people in high speed capsules through a series of tubes.

The world’s fastest passenger train, the Maglev, owned by the Central Japan Railway Company, made history last month by hitting a top speed of 366 mph surpassing its previous record of 361 mph set in 2003.

The Federal Railroad Administration was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. The U.S. agency regulates the manufacturing and safety of the train transportation industry. A few of the more widely known train manufacturers are National Railway Equipment Company (NREX) headquarted in Mt. Vernon, IL. This company is known for its N-ViroMotive engine which is used for light duty road switching in yards and urban areas where noise and exhaust emissions are to be reduced. GE Transportation Systems (GETS), a division of General Electric, is headquartered in Chicago while its main manufacturing plant is located in Erie, Pennsylvania. This company is the largest producer of diesel-electric locomotives. Its Dash9 series has an electronic fuel injector and a 4-stroke diesel engine.

GE Dash 9 Series. Source: Wikipedia
GE Dash 9 Series. Source: Wikipedia

Gomaco Trolley Company, located in Ida Grove, Iowa, manufactures trolley cars which look vintage but have state-of-the-art technology. Streetcars or cable cars are used in cities such as Portland, San Diego, San Francisco. Rapid transit commuter trains, known as the metro or subway, are a primary means of transportation in Atlanta, Washington D.C., and New York. U.S. Manufacture of Rail Vehicles for Intercity Passenger Rail and Urban Transit documents several companies which manufacture parts for high-speed, rapid transportation.







Train: riding the rails that created the modern world by Tom Zoellner.
Train: riding the rails that created the modern world by Tom Zoellner.

Sinclair, Angus. Locomotive Engine Running and Management, 21st edition. New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1899, Engineering Library TJ607 .S6 1899

Wolmar, Christian. Blood, Iron & Gold: how the railroads transformed the world. New York: PublicAffairs, 2010. Engineering Library HE1021 .W78 2009

Zoellner, Tom. Train: riding the rails that created the modern world. New York: Viking, 2014. Engineering Library HE1021 .Z64 2014

Federal Railroad Administration. U.S. Department of Transportation


Facebook: National Train Day 2015

Brasor, Philip and Tsubuku, Masako. How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today. The Guardian, September 30, 2014

Vartabedian, Ralph. “Work starting on the bullet train; Construction begins Tuesday in Fresno on the first 29-mile segment of the $68-billion fast train..” Los Angeles Times. (January 5, 2015 Monday ): 1252 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2015/05/07.

Upbin, Bruce. Hyperloop is real: meet the startups selling supersonic travel. Forbes, March 2, 2015

Blood, Iron, & Gold by Chrisitan Wolmar
Blood, Iron, & Gold by Chrisitan Wolmar


1. Langone, John. The New How Things Work. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004, p.84. Engineering Library FOLIO T47 .L2923 2004

2. Langone, John. The New How Things Work. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2004, pp.86-87. Engineering Library FOLIO T47 .L2923 2004

3. Hallidie, A.S. U.S. Patent 110,971. Improvement in Endless Wire Ropeways. Assigned January 17, 1871.

4. Langone, John. The New How Thinks Work. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Soceity, 2004, pp.88-91. Engineering Library FOLIO T47 .L2923 2004

Get the Lead Out

Ticonderoga pencilEeyore was saying to himself, “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.” — Winnie the Pooh.

A long time ago, in a far away place, before apps and texts and even typewriters, pencils were used to convey the written word. As you purchase a new box of Ticonderogas to mark your bubble answer sheet, consider the invention of the pencil.


Pencils are made with graphite. Therefore, graphite mining had to exist before the pencil was created. The first graphite was mined at Seathwaite Fell in Cumbria, England in 1564. Since graphite has similar properties to lead, it was first called, “plumbago,” derived from the Latin word for lead ore. The first pencils were produced by sawing the graphite into sheets, shaping the graphite sheets into square rods, and inserting the graphite rods into a wood casement. However, the first pencils were fragile because the graphite broke easily.


H.L. Linman Pencil & Eraser PatentTo prevent the graphite from breaking, French chemist, Nicolas-Jacques Conté, discovered the process of mixing the graphite with clay. The soft material was pressed into sticks and kiln-fired. At which point, the dry graphite & clay rod was inserted into a wooden case. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, Conté discovered that he could manufacture a pencil for a specific hardness to differentiate the marks on paper. For example, No.2 pencils are popular because of its midrange hardness which leaves dark marks without smudging. No.1 is the softest graphite and leaves a darker, smudgier mark , and No.3 pencils leave a fainter mark. Conté’s 1795 patent is the basic process for manufacturing pencils today.

To learn more about the manufacturing of pencils, watch this video from the Science Channel, How It’s Made : Pencils.


Try answering these questions:

A. What chemical is graphite composed of?

B. What television personality regularly played with specially made pencils with erasers at both ends?

C. Which inventor had his pencils specially designed to be three inches long with abnormally soft graphite?

D. Who received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil?

E. The majority of pencils manufactured in the United States are what color?

F. How long is the Guinness Book of Work Records largest pencil?

References & Resources

New Carbons book
Inagaki, Michio. New Carbons: Control of Structure and Functions. New York : Elsevier Science, 2000. Engineering Library TA455.C3 I53 2000
Graphite Graphene and Their Polymer Nanocomposites book cover
Mukhopadhyay, Prithu and Gupta, Rakesh K., editors. Graphite, graphene, and their polymer nanocomposites. Boca Raton, FL : CRC Press, 2013. Engineering Library TA455 .G7 G73 2013

National Day Calendar: National Pencil Day, March 30. 2015.

Wikipedia: Pencil. March 26, 2015.

Cumberland Pencil Museum.2011. Southey Works. Date accessed March 2015

Trivia Answers:

A. It is made almost entirely of carbon atoms.
B. Johnny Carson
C. Thomas Edison
D. Hymen Lipman, U.S. Patent 19,783, March 30, 1858
E. Yellow
F. 65 feet tall

March Winds

A field of wind turbines located west of Williams, Iowa Source: Wikimedia Commons
A field of wind turbines located west of Williams, Iowa Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is the proverbially windy month of March, when the weather is widely variable, blowing in warmer temperatures and creating spring storms.

If you want to see how windy Iowa (or the entire country) is, check out the Wind Map.

How can Mother Natures’s ferocious power be harnessed and tamed?

Driving along Interstate 80, acres of wind turbines rise majestically over the corn fields and blink in the midnight sky making the wind industry a vital economic resource. The state of Iowa has more than 80 wind installations with over 2,500 turbines capable of producing 3,670 megawatts of power. The turbines generated nearly 27% of Iowa’s total electricity in 2013,2 and more than 50 companies are responsible for employing 3,626 people3 whose jobs are to manufacture, transport, or assemble the giant blades and towers, rotors and generators. Even farmers are compensated for leasing their land, furthering the benefits to the Iowa economy.

With towers standing over 200 feet tall and spinning two or three 116-feet propeller-like blades, how do these behemoth, industrial-sized wind turbines generate electricity? Simply stated, the energy in the wind turns the blades around a rotor. The rotor is connected to a shaft which spins a generator to create electricity. However, to learn more, see how a wind turbine works.4 Be sure to hover over the different parts for more information.

As you are out in the last few days of the blustery month of March, consider all the power and energy those winds produce.

Xu, Xuegen, Yu, Kai, and He, Guorong. Downwind Variable Pitch Wind Turbine Generator. U.S. Patent 20130011262. Filed May 22, 2011. Assigned January 10, 2013. Source: http://www.google.com/patents/US20130011262
Xu, Xuegen, Yu, Kai, and He, Guorong. Downwind Variable Pitch Wind Turbine Generator. U.S. Patent 20130011262. Filed May 22, 2011. Assigned January 10, 2013. Source: http://www.google.com/patents/US20130011262

References & Resources

1 Craig, Ashely, et al. The Wind Energy Supply Chain in Iowa. Chicago, IL: The Environmental Law & Policy Center, November 2010

2 U.S. Energy Information Administration. Iowa. Quick Facts

3 “Iowa projected to add 1,330 energy jobs in 2015.” The Des Moines Register, December 15, 2014

4 How Does a Wind Turbine Work? Source: U.S. Department of Energy. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

5 Iowa Wind Energy Association

6 American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) TC 88 Wind turbine systems

Books & Standards

Newton, David E. Wind energy: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015. Engineering Library On order

Edited by Panos M. Pardalos, et al. Handbook of wind power systems. Berlin: Spring, 2014. Engineering Library TJ820 .H36 2014

Harvest the Wind book cover
Engineering Library TK1541 .W36 2012

Warburg, Philip. Harvest the wind: America’s journey to jobs, energy independence, and climate stability. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Engineering Library TK1541 .W36 2012

Edited by Charalambos C. Baniotopoulos et al. Environmental wind engineering and design of wind energy structures. New York: Springer Verlag, 2011. Engineering Library QC931 .E58 2011

Burthchen, Marco, et al. Material Qualification of Main Bearings for Large Wind Energy Turbines. November 21, 2014. STP 1580, 2014. http://www.astm.org

Index of Wind turbine standards. Source: International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC)

Waste to Water

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, and the world’s richest man, is known for changing how the world operates and functions. The mission of his non-profit, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is to give all people the chance to live a healthy and productive life. To this end, during the mid-1990s, Bill Gates gave computers to libraries and schools, which made sense for the world’s largest software owner. But how did Bill Gates becomes interested in poop? Yes…human excrement. His philanthropic organization granted money to Janicki Bioenergy to build the OmniProcessor, a machine which transforms fecal sludge and solid waste into water and electricity. In places without treatment plants or clean water, the technology could be a low-cost solution to quench the world’s thirst.


Bill Gates explains the process in this video.


American Chemical Society. “Converting Sewage Into Drinking Water: Wave Of The Future?” ScienceDaily, 30 January 2008. Source: TechStreet

American Water Works Association. Security Practices for Operation and Management. AWWA G430-14 November 1, 2014

Bill Gates’ latest passion: a machine that turns poop into water by Todd Wasserman. Mashable, January 6, 2015

Bill Gates 2.0 by 60 Minutes. CBS News, May 14, 2013

Career Opportunities at Janicki Bioenergy

U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency. Current Drinking Water Regulations

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Drinking Water Contaminants

Celebrating Weatherpeople!

John Jeffries
John Jeffries Source: Wikipedia

Because the weather has a significant impact on our daily lives, National Weatherperson’s Day recognizes the scientists who track our major storms and atmospheric climate changes. The day commemorates the birth of John Jeffries who was born in Boston in 1745. He was a Harvard graduate and surgeon who became fascinated with observing the weather. Beginning in 1774, he daily measured and recorded the weather in Boston. Then, in 1784, he made a historical balloon flight across the English Channel to observe atmospheric conditions up close.

Weather balloons, anemometer cups and rain gauges have since been replaced with earth-orbiting satellites and computer-aided atmospheric modeling used for gathering data to predict long- and short-term meteorological events which will significantly impact our global atmosphere in terms of ozone levels and and movement of storms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the United States governmental body responsible for monitoring and forecasting the weather and conducting meteorological research. NASA, too, is instrumental in researching and mapping atmosopheric changes using telescopes and space stations.

Take a moment and think of your favorite and trusted meteorologist…big hint…she is your very own engineering librarian.





Satellite Weather Radar Source: IIHR
Satellite Weather Radar Source: IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering University of Iowa


infoplease: meteorology

infoplease: weather balloon

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration http://www.noaa.gov/

National Aeronautics and Space Administration http://www.nasa.gov/

Meteorological Technology World Expo 2015 http://www.meteorologicaltechnologyworldexpo.com/



Atmospheric Change book cover
Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Change Engineering Library QC879.6 .A85 1999


Atmospheric chemistry and global change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Engineering Library QC879.6 .A85 1999

Wallace, John M. Atmoshperic science: an introductory survey, 2d edition. Boston: Elsevier Academic Press, 2oo6. Engineering Library FOLIIO QC861.3 .W3 2006

Understanding Weather and Climate, 6th edition. Engineering Library QC861.3 .A38 2013. Engineering Library QC861.3 .A38 2013



Drones are taking off

Source: Make: Technology on Your Time Volume 37: Drones Take Off!
Source: Make: Technology on Your Time Volume 37: Drones Take Off! January 31, 2014 Available in the UI Lichtenberger Engineering Library periodicals section

As you take your final exam, you may find yourself shopping last minute for your family’s holiday gifts. Don’t despair. There is a day for that. December 18th is Free Shipping Day; a one-day, online-shopping event when thousands of merchants offer free shipping with delivery by Christmas Eve.1

So how do your packages go over the river and through the woods to arrive at your grandmother’s house in less than a week? Current delivery methods include carefully choreographed and computerized warehouse management structures as well as expedited ground and air express shipping services. Now, another method is rapidly taking off: commercial drones.

Typically, drones are associated with clandestine military operations. However, a year ago Amazon announced that it is developing aerial robotic technology to fly packages directly to a person’s doorstep.2 “Drones ‘will change the way we conduct some of our existing business in the not-too-distant future, but more importantly, will create completely new and world-changing applications we haven’t even thought of yet,’ said Jeff Lovin, a Woolpert senior vice president.”3

What is required to make this happen? The Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency responsible for all aircraft flying in the United States airspace, must approve of their safety. “The key safety element is to prevent drones from colliding with other aircraft, or with people on the ground. That means ensuring ways for other aircraft to detect and avoid drones, and for drones to land safely if they lose contact with remote pilots.”4

Because of the high demand for developing commercial, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the FAA is pressured to expedite rules and regulations. In a letter to the FAA, Amazon said its indoor testing of drones must now move outdoors “to practice in real-world conditions.” Paul Misener, the company’s vice president of global public policy, said the company might move its research abroad if the FAA does not act quickly. With a Congressionally mandated deadline of September 2015 looming large, the government agency has set up six test sites across the country and given exemption status to a few companies in order to learn more about how the technology works.5

What if you miss Free Shipping Day? Perhaps purchase your own Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 and personally deliver your gifts in record time.

Planning and Decision Making for Aerial Robots book cover
Bestaoui Sebbane, Yasmina. Planning and Decision Making for Aerial Robots. New York: Springer, 2014. Engineering Library TL718 .B47 2014


1About Free Shipping Day

2Amazon Unveils Futureristic Plan: Delivery by Drone December 2, 2013 (Source: 60 Minutes CBS News website)

3FAA Lets 4 companies Fly Commercial Drones (Source: USAToday.com, December 10, 2014)


5FAA’s Treatment of Amazon Proves Congress Must Act or Companies Will Take Drone Research Abroad (Source: Forbes.com, December 10, 2014)



Learn More

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International

Bestaoui Sebbane, Yasmina. Planning and Decision Making for Aerial Robots. New York: Springer, 2014. Engineering Library TL718 .B47 2014

Commercial Drones (Source: Popular Science website)

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Source: Federal Aviation Administration website – FAA.gov)

“60 Minutes” reports on the uncertainty of regulating drones March 14, 2014 (Source: YouTube)

Get Cooking; Saturday is Microwave Oven Day

Raytheon’s Radarange. Source: How the microwave oven became a super success (http://www.marketingvp.com/guests/globe/oven.htm)

In 1942, while Dr.Percy Spencer was testing a magnetron, a candy bar in his pocket melted. This was Dr. Spencer’s ‘aha moment’ when he realized that radioactive beams can cook food. The Raytheon Company filed a patent application for Spencer’s invention on October 8, 1945. Then the company built the first commercially available microwave oven calling it the Radarange. It debuted in 1947 standing six feet tall and weighing over 700 pounds.1

Obviously, this behemoth model did not become popular in the average American home. However, during the 1970s, smaller “electronic ovens” started to make their way into the ordinary kitchen. At first, they were used reticently because the radioactive waves were considered harmful. However, the convenience of microwave cooking outweighed the fear factor. During the 1980s, the market was saturated with microwave cookbooks and products such as microwave bacon trays. Even Dire Straits references the kitchen appliance in Money for Nothing. Today’s average microwave cooks between 1000-1200 watts and is America’s sweetheart appliance for fast and convenient defrosting of frozen foods, rewarming of leftovers, or popping of corn. Bon appétit!

How does a microwave oven work? “A microwave oven produces high-frequency electromagnetic waves. Passing through food, the waves reverse polarity billions of times a second. The food’s water molecules also have polarity, and they react to each change by rapidly reversing themselves. Friction results, heating the water and cooking the food.2 For a visual explanation, watch the video, “How a Microwave Oven Works” by Bill Hammack from the Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


US Patent 2495429
Spencer, Percy L. Method of treating foodstuffs. U.S. Patent 2,495,429, filed October 8, 1945, issued January 24, 1950.

1 National Microwave Day (December 6, 2009)

2 Langone, John. How Things Work: Everyday Technology Explained. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006, p.14. Engineering Library T47 .L2923 2006

3 Spencer, Percy L. Method of treating foodstuffs. U.S. Patent 2,495,429, filed October 8, 1945, issued January 24, 1950. Source: Google Patents

Books and Standards

Crupi, Giovanni, Editor. Microwave De-Embedding: From Theory to Applications. Waltham, MA: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2014. Engineering Library TK7876 .M53 2014

Hwang, Ruey-Bing. Periodic Structures: Mode-Matching Approach and Applications in Electromagnetic Engineering. Singapore: Wiley, 2013. Engineering Library TK872.F5 H93 2013

Maas, Stephen A. Practical Microwave Circuits. Boston: Artech House, 2014. Engineering Library (on order)

Pozar, David M. Microwave Engineering, 3rd. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley, 2005. Engineering Library TK7876 .P69 2005

Rohde, Ulrich L. RF/Microwave Circuit Design for Wireless Applications, 2nd. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013. Engineering Library TK7876 .R65 2013

Subcommittee F02.15 on Chemical/Safety Products microwave oven standards (Source: ASTM)

Need a Lift?

Motorized Inventory Robot Patent
Mountz, Michael C, et al. Inventory system with mobile drive unit and inventory holder. U.S. Patent 7,402,018, filed October 14, 2004, issued July 22, 2008.

December 1st is Cyber Monday, a day created by marketing companies to persuade people to shop online the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Employees returning to their desks after the holiday, stuffed full of turkey, are considered prime to shop on their high-speed internet connections at work. Warehouses, such as Amazon, are stocked to the brim with merchandise, and according to the Wall Street Journal, its order-fulfillment plans for this year’s holiday season will involve 10,000 robots. “Hugging the floor like a Roomba, and about the size of a big suitcase, these bright-orange bots lift and carry shelf-stacks of merchandise to warehouse workers who pack items for shipping. The idea is that it’s easier for the humans to stay in one place rather than tromp around a cavernous facility.”1, 2

Kiva Systems, now owned by Amazon Inc., has been engineering automated guided vehicles (AGVs) since the early 2000s.3 But as early as the 1970s, robotic lifts were being developed. In 1976, a self-propelled “Wheeled vehicle adapted to turn on the spot” with a load-carrying body or platform was issued by the US Patent Office.4

Basic components of an electric forklift. Source: en.wikipedia.org
Basic components of an electric forklift. Source: en.wikipedia.org

However, before the days of high tech, and still widely used, manual and motorized fork lifts move heavy items from one place to another. The first fork truck was the two-wheeled hand truck made of wrought iron axles and cast iron wheels Then, “in 1906, an official of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Altoona, Pennsylvania added storage battery power to a baggage wagon, producing what was probably the first powered platform truck. The controls were placed so that the operator had to walk out in front.” Between 1913 and 1919, trucks were engineered to lift small cranes both horizontally as well as vertically and forks and rams were introduced.”6

The Industrial Truck Association represents the manufacturers of powered and non-powered industrial trucks (forklifts) who do business in the United States, Canada and Mexico. It assumes responsibility for the Safety Standards for Low and High Lift Trucks as well as the Safety Standard for Driverless, Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles and Automated Functions of Manned Industrial Vehicles.7,8


1 “Amazon’s Warehouse Robots, at Work and Play,” by Rob Walker. Yachoo! Tech, November 20, 2014.

2 “Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas,” by Greg Bensinger. The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2014.

3 Mountz, Michael C, et al. Inventory system with mobile drive unit and inventory holder. U.S. Patent 7,402,018, filed October 14, 2004, issued July 22, 2008. Source: Google Patents

4 Folco Zambelli Gian Matteo, “Wheeled vehicle adapted to turn on the spot.” U.S. Patent 3,938,608, filed January 18, 1974, issued February 17, 1976. Source: Google Patents

5 “History of the Fork Truck” by Rick Leblanc. Packaging Revolution, October 17, 2011.

Excellence in Warehouse Management book cover6 Emmett, Stuart. Excellence in warehouse management : how to minimise costs and maximise value. Chicheser, West Sussex, England : Hoboken, NJ : Wiley, 2005. Engineering Library HF5485 .46 2005

7 Safety Standard for Low Lift and High Lift Trucks. ANSI/ITSDF B56.1-2012 (Revision of ANSI/ITSDF B56.1-2009) (PDF)

8 Safety Standard for Driverless, Automatic Guided Industrial Vehicles and Automated Functions of Manned Industrial Vehicles. ANSI/ITSDF B56.5-2012. (Order from ITSDF.org)

9 Steering a New Course” by Jack Maxwell. Standardization News, ASTM International.