The mysterious Goodyear blimp

On a recent drive across the desert from California to Arizona, I decided to stop and see the Blythe airport. I had flown over it, but never landed and visited. To my delight, as I rolled up in my car, I discovered that the Goodyear blimp had just landed!

I had never seen it that close before. This one is Wingfoot Two (I later discovered that there are three in the current fleet). I talked briefly with one of the ground support staff and learned that the blimp was stopping in Blythe overnight on its way to Vegas to attend (and record/broadcast) a golf match. In this picture, the blimp is attached to a mobile mast on the right, and a tiny wheel at its aft end is touching the ground as they maneuver the blimp to its desired position. (Click the image to enlarge)

Later when I was back at a computer, I wanted to find out more about these blimps and how they work. Apparently Goodyear got into the lighter-than-air business in 1898, and in 1925 they flew the first blimp that used helium. Mostly they seem to have been used for advertising, and not just for their own tires. Some blimps have lighted panels on their sides where they can spell words or scroll messages; in 1966 they added the “Skytacular” which was in 4 colors and had animations; now they have “Eaglevision” which uses high-res LEDs and can show video :). I’ve never seen one in operation scrolling messages!

In WWII, they were used for patrolling the ocean (escorting navy convoys). I don’t know if they had any weapons.

In 1955, the blimp became the “first aerial platform to provide a live TV picture”… for the Rose Parade! :)

The Goodyear blimps use helium, which has about the same lifting force as hydrogen, but with the added benefit of not being explosive. The infamous Hindenburg disaster occurred when the (German) Hindenburg, which was also designed for use with helium, was instead filled with hydrogen, apparently because the U.S. was monopolizing helium for its own use, and helium had become correspondingly expensive internationally. The Hindenburg had 97 people onboard when it ignited in 1937 (36 died).

We actually have stunning real footage of the Hindenburg coming in to land and blowing up (!).

What Goodyear flies now is not technically a blimp (!) (“blimp” = no rigid structure) but instead a “semi-rigid airship” or “zeppelin”. (The Hindenburg was a third type of airship: fully rigid). However, Goodyear still encourages the use of the term “blimp.” Its max speed is 73 mph (not bad!), and it seats up to 14 people. Today’s Goodyear blimps are 246 feet long, compared with 804 feet (!) for the Hindenburg.

On my way back to California a few days later, I saw the blimp AGAIN, this time cruising eastward and following Interstate 10. It was less than 1000′ above the ground, which seemed curious to me. Fare you well, semi-rigid airship! :)

The Art of Getting There

Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Pasadena Museum of History. I went to check out their exhibit on railroad-inspired art. It was delightful! Among other things, several of the pieces were inspired by the very steam locomotive that I got to operate a few weeks ago (see art at right!), as well as other engines and people from the Nevada Northern Railway.

One artist whose work I enjoyed was Bradford Salamon. The first item in the gallery is a dynamic locomotive he painted (titled “Unknown Adventures”), which sadly I cannot find online or on his website to share with you (and photos were not permitted). It was accompanied by a charming statement describing how he enjoys painting “portraits” of objects, not to reproduce the objects, but instead to trigger a memory or feeling associated with them. He paints typewriters, phones, radios, cars, … and trains. Here is one of his trains that I was able to find:

There were also several woodblock prints from Japan that were commissioned to get the public excited when trains were first introduced in Japan (~1850s). Because they were commissioned before the trains actually arrived, and none of the artists had ever seen one, they often copied from U.S. or British publications that showed steam engines… and in one case a steam fire-engine (to put fires out)!

One artist copied from a picture of a train on the Panama Railway, in which one car had “U.S. Mail” printed on it; in the Japanese version, this became “U.S. Maus” (‘maus’ happens to be ‘mouse’ in German). The gallery showed the source images that the artists had used, and you could definitely see how “Mail” could be misinterpreted as “Maus” if you did not speak English!

Here is the Panama original (but not at high enough resolution to read the relevant letters):

Now I want to ride the Panama Railway! You can – it’s a one-hour ride that costs only $25, and includes an open-air viewing deck! Time for a trip to Panama? :)

How to drive a steam locomotive

I recently got to drive a steam locomotive! The Nevada Northern Railway in Ely, NV, allows you to Be the Engineer for a 14-mile trip up and down hills, through two tunnels, and across several road crossings. This is an incredible experience – visually and physically!

(By the way – I learned that you “run” or “operate” an engine, not “drive” it, since no steering is involved. But that is how they describe the experience to newcomers :) )

Did you ever see such a beautiful engine?


NN 40, built by Baldwin in 1910

Before climbing into the engineer’s seat, I had to study a 122-page rulebook and take a short (open book) exam. I learned about whistle signals, hand signals, speed limits, track warrants, air brakes, and more. I learned radio protocol (interestingly, it’s backwards from typical airplane conventions; you announce who you are and then who you want to speak with, e.g., “NN 93 to NN Conductor 93, over”). In addition, “the use of ten codes” (I assume this means things like “10-4”) is prohibited.

I also helped get the engine ready for action. The rest of the crew gave me small jobs, like greasing the many bolts that connect rods and other pieces, and refilling the oil reservoirs. Meanwhile, they stoked up the fire in the boiler, cleaned the engine, filled up the tender’s 6000-gallon water tank, and ensured we had enough coal. The steam engine goes through 75 gallons of water *per mile* and consumes about a ton of coal in the 14-mile trip we did!

After three hours of prep, the engine was ready to go! I climbed up into the cab and learned how to start and stop the engine, then practiced this while we were still in the railyard.

The primary controls are the throttle and the brake. The throttle is a squeeze lever with many (~20) detents. Bouncing along, it requires some fine eye-hand coordination to move it precisely to the desired notch. It, too, is backwards from the throttle on an airplane: moving it out (towards you) gives you more steam, not less!

The brake is a smaller handle, easier to manipulate. If you want to slow down, you move it to a setting that allows compressed air into the brake cylinders, pressing the brake shoes against the wheels. You monitor how much brake you are applying through a pressure gauge. Then you move the handle the other direction to release the compressed air (you can hear it hiss out) and the wheels resume unimpeded motion.

The massive locomotive responds slowly to control changes, so both controls are best applied with careful anticipation of the upcoming track – its grade, any curves, preparation for tunnels, etc.

There is also a reversing lever that is mounted vertically in the floor. As one of my books warns, “A strong arm is needed for the reversing lever!” It has a more subtle effect on locomotion by altering the amount of steam that gets into the piston cylinders on each stroke. You want it set full forward to get moving, then back it off for “cruise” to achieve more efficient operations.

And we were off! We left the railyard and climbed a gentle hill. We went through two tunnels and several road crossings. For each crossing, I blew the whistle – LONG LONG short LONG! Mike, our fireman, was busy shoveling coal as needed, injecting more water into the boiler, and ringing the bell through all crossings as well. What a delightful noise!

We used a GPS-based speedometer to track our speed, which stopped working each time we went into a tunnel. However, after a while you get a feel for speed based on the sound of the pistons (and such a lovely sound it is). Pistons mounted on each side provide the driving power for the large wheels. Each wheel gets driven twice per rotation (unlike engines in cars, airplanes, etc.):


In addition, the left and right wheels are offset in phase so that one side gets maximal torque when the other is at minimum (end of its stroke). So what you hear is CHUFF-chuff-chuff-chuff as the pistons go right-forward, left-forward, right-back, left-back, for a smooth continuous overall motion.

At the top of the hill, I gave the controls over to John, the engineer who was training me, and he traced our way through a “wye” (track set up to enable a three-point turn by an engine), which got us set up to return back downhill.

We then continued back down the hill to return to the railyard. The whole trip took about an hour and 15 minutes. After the initial learning curve, it got very comfortable to roll along and listen and respond to the chuff of the pistons as needed. My mind quieted and I filled up with the pure joy of the moment. What an overwhelming experience!


Me driving Number 40

Thank you to Richard Ondrovic for taking these fantastic photos!

The Tool Petting Zoo

Yesterday I volunteered with Kids Building Things to offer a Tool Petting Zoo. This is a chance for kids (and their parents) to see, touch, and use tools of all kinds — screwdrivers, bubble level, wire cutters, hammers, saw, a drill press, and more.

Even better, I got to learn some new tools myself! I got to use a pipe cutter, which looks like this:

You put the pipe inside its jaws and then spin the screw until it grips the pipe. Then you rotate the cutter around the pipe, tightening the screw whenever it feels slack, until it slices through the pipe. Magic!

I then got to use a pipe bender:


This picture shows a pipe after it’s been bent with the tool. It requires very little effort. You put the flat pipe through the device. Then, as you squeeze the handles together, the pipe bends in a nice curve, supported by the metal disk, which dictates the radius of curvature. You stop squeezing when you have as much curve as you want. This is great fun!

Finally, I learned to use a rivet puller:


You line up the holes in whatever pieces you want to attach, then put a rivet through it and squeeze the handle. This pulls the bottom of the rivet up, fattening it out on the reverse side, and eventually it can pull no further, the top snaps off, and you’re left with a beautiful rivet.

The kids were encouraged to make a sculpture, or whatever they wanted, with the tools. I made a mini Loch Ness monster:

IMG_1997

Check out my cool rivets and bent pipe!

Cardboard automata

Cardboard automata are machines made out of cardboard. They are often operated by a hand crank or dial to initiate the motion. As the primary axle turns, cams attached to it cause cam followers to rise, fall, or spin, depending on their geometry.

Just based on that description, who could resist diving in immediately to make one?

Not me.

Plus, I had an assignment from my Maker Space class to “make something you’ve never made before.” Bingo!

I discovered an excellent set of instructions, with pictures, created by The PIE (Play – Invent – Explore) Institute. I decided it would be a fun challenge to make as much of the project as possible out of “found” (available) items in my home.

box-cornersI cut a cardboard box in half, then reinforced the corners to prevent it from collapsing sideways. I cut a hole in each side of the box to connect an axle across it. The instructions suggested using skewers for the axle and cam shafts, but since I didn’t have any, I instead used some wooden dowels I had lying around. I thought they might create a more sturdy result. However, I didn’t have a dowel long enough to span the box, so I temporarily taped three dowels together to build my first prototype. I cut out some cams out of craft foam and slid them onto the axle at different positions.

cam-followersI also created three cam followers by cutting circles out of the foam and inserting more dowels into their centers. Then I cut three holes in the top of the box for the cam followers and connected everything together.

I chose three different cam designs for my three units. The middle cam is round and centered, which generates rotation in the cam follower. The left cam is egg-shaped, which generates rotation and vertical motion. The two right cams are round but off center, and they are positioned to be 180 degrees out of phase. Therefore, they alternate in their contact with the cam follower, which goes up and down and alternates between clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation.

tubesAt this point, when I turned the axle, the dowels wiggled back and forth and sometimes moved themselves off their cams. I consulted the instructions, which advised inserting drinking straws into the top holes so the skewers have a strong guide to keep them aligned. My dowels were far too thick for straws, so I cut up a cereal box to get a firm yet shapeable cardboard sheet. I rolled this cardboard to create tubes that were just slightly larger than the cam shaft dowels. The machine’s performance improved dramatically, and I decided it was time to glue everything down: the tubes in their holes, the cam followers to their shafts, and the cams to the axle. And it worked!

Once I had a working machine, I was free to add whatever design elements I wanted. Extending the cardboard design theme, I found instructions for how to make flowers from toilet paper rolls as well as a sprout/palm-like plant for the middle cam shaft. I glued green paper and brown felt onto the top to give it a nature-inspired look, added some paper flowers, and cut out a paper backdrop of twisting grass shapes to accentuate the feeling of motion. Finally, I used colored markers to decorate the cam followers so that their motion (and its direction) is more visually evident, since the mechanism is a focal point of the project.

Here is a longer video that explains the parts of the machine.

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