Lean on me

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. P...

English: An APT at The Railway Age in Crewe. Photo by G-Man * Oct 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As any pinball player knows, a bit of tilt can be a very good thing. Too much, and it’s game over. When it comes to Technology, getting that tilt right is even harder.

My mother suffers from terrible seasickness. When we used to get the ferry over to Ireland, she would start being sick as soon as we left the harbour wall and she wouldn’t stop again until we were firmly docked at the other end.

Sir Henry Bessemer was a man after her own heart. He recognised the problem of seasickness and tried to devise an ingenious solution. He understood that the cause of seasickness was all the rocking and rolling of the cabin. If one could eliminate that, the passengers could enjoy a smooth ride. His solution was to mount the saloon independently of the ship, the SS Bessemer, on gimbals. Whilst the ship sailed along, a man watched a spirit level and pulled a lever to keep the saloon level.

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1)

Swinging Saloon Steamer Bessemer, 1875 (1) (Photo credit: Marcel Douwe Dekker)

Unfortunately for Sir Henry, it’s not a great idea to have something rolling around in the middle of a ship as it makes it very unstable and difficult to steer. That’s why oil tankers have baffles to stop the oil sloshing around. The maiden voyage was a disaster. The ship crashed into Calais pier not once but twice because of the instability of the ship.

On land, at least you don’t have the vagaries sea level to worry about which ought to make tilting things easier. In the 1970s, British Rail set about devising a tilting train to increase the speed of the rail network. France and Japan had leapfrogged Britain with the TGV and the bullet train.

If the tracks were completely straight, going fast would not be a problem. Unfortunately, they have a habit of bending to avoid things like hills, lakes and the sea. As any motorcyclist knows, if you want to go round a corner fast, the best thing to do is lean over. British Rail’s answer to this was the Advanced Passenger Train (the APT).

The train Used a series of sensors to measure the telemetry of the train and a set of hydraulic rams to lean into the corner. Also debuting on the Advanced Passenger Train was an incredibly sophisticated braking system which allowed the train to brake within the existing signal network. Unfortunately, all this sophistication was the APT’s downfall. They were incredibly unreliable in service and there were complaints from some about motion sickness.

Big Ben

Big Ben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes when you are making advances in rail technology, the last thing you want is any tilting. When engineers undertook the Jubilee line extension in 1994, they were painfully aware of some of the challenges that faced them.

One of their biggest headaches was the station opposite Big Ben. Everyone knew that Big Ben had been built on perilously shallow foundations. Indeed, on its completion, it started to lean to the North. If the Jubilee Line engineers came along digging a big hole next door, there was every chance the tower could topple into the Thames, which would not make great PR for the project.

In order to prevent any further tilting, they injected tubes of concrete in a star shape around the base of the tower. They injected concrete through holes in these tubes to stabilise the soft earth. During the project, they measured the exact angle of Big Ben regularly and if there was the slightest hint of a tilt, they injected more concrete. The Jubilee Line extension had its problems during construction, but a leaning Big Ben was not one of them.

Messing about on the river

English: Building a Dugout Canoe at Basecamp K...

English: Building a Dugout Canoe at Basecamp Karuskose in Soomaa National Park, Estonia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a means of transport, boats must be among the very earliest discovered by mankind. A wandering caveman probably saw something like a log drifting down a river and had a brainwave. All he had to do was climb aboard and he could float effortlessly wherever the river went. Logs are not particularly stable, so it wasn’t long before he became fed up with falling in and had the idea of hollowing out the log to make a boat.

The form factor of modern boats has not really changed that much from these early days. With the odd departure into hovercrafts and hydrofoils, pretty much every modern boat relies on Archimedes principle of displacement in order to float. There have been advances in things such as instrumentation and propulsion but the shape of modern vessels has barely changed from the prehistoric dugout canoe.

I have always been fascinated by boats and having just finished The Voyage of the Princess Matilda by Shane Spall, I find myself pleasantly reminded of the days when we had a boat. It was a small cabin cruiser which we moored down near Staines on the River Thames. It is barely a 15 minute drive between Staines and Windsor by car, but in our boat it took 4 hours. Firstly because rivers aren’t straight. Secondly, because boats aren’t quick and lastly because there are 4 locks that lie between them.

The nicest feeling in the world is waking up early and drinking a steaming hot cup of tea whilst sat in the morning chill on the back of your boat. The swans would drift silently through the mist with Windsor Castle as a backdrop.

We had our fair share of thrills and spills and how I didn’t receive a ducking is beyond me. I came very close on a couple of occasions. The first was when I leapt from a moving vessel onto a mooring pontoon. That was when I learned the valuable lesson that every action has an equal and opposite reaction and I barely managed to keep my footing.

English: Canal boat entering Lock on the Thame...

English: Canal boat entering Lock on the Thames river. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second time was in a lock. It doesn’t matter how much practise you have at going through a lock. It is still very easy to mess it up and when it goes wrong, it causes much merriment among anyone there to see it. My brother was driving, I was on the rear rope and my sister in law on the front rope. Somehow I managed to end up horizontally with my hands on the side of the lock and my feet on the boat looking down into a rapidly expanding chasm of water. Somehow I managed to crab my way to the front of the boat.

So why did I get rid of it? Boats are expensive. A friend of mine maintains that a boat is something you pour money into until it sinks. Take any product or service and insert the word “boat” and the price trebles instantly. We just weren’t getting enough use out of it to justify the expenditure.

Also – boats get filthy. If ever there was a technological advance worth making, it must be the self-cleaning boat.