Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Postblogging January, 1944, II: Technical Appendix: Mad Science For A Better Tomorrow*

Electrical installation at Consolidated-Vultee's Tucson, Arizona modification centre, some time late in 1943.

Up to the moment I hit "Publish," I share her with one other male gaze. My eye is on the past. His is on the future. Praise the goddess-descended daughter of Elysium. I just hope for his sake that she doesn't freeze him out, that there's a spark there.


So let's, for a moment, talk about consumer innovation. It rather weighs on me, because failed innovation (I'm looking at you, Pepsico.) The trick with launching a new brand is both simple and hard. You just have to find something that people do not know they need yet. Since Fortune clubbed me over the head with that coming thing, refrigeration, I have been attentive to the iconic brands of the grocery frozen aisle. It has been an interesting bit of half-ass research. Minute Maid is on the cusp of launching, something that hangs over a retrospective reading of the Luce press by virtue of the amount of press that soon-to-be-founder Richard S. Morse gets there. 

No, I do not know why. Swanson's is another matter. Carl Swanson is already a big name in the food distribution business, and his sons' move into "TV dinners" will be a natural extension of their brand identity when they finally get around to it in 1953. (Swanson brand frozen pot pies, the original Bachelor Chow, date to 1949.) Eggo  also appeared in 1953. The Dorsa brothers are already a San Jose success story, having run a potato chip plant there since 1938, but national penetration begins with the cellophane-wrapped frozen breakfast food. Green Giant's brand identity will be established in every respect well before they add frozen vegetables to their canned lines in 1961. As for ice cream, there's clearly something going on in the 1920s. Industry-leading brands like Popsicle, Alcoa and Good Humor all appeared in the first Reagan Harding Administration.

If you're wondering, Reynolds Aluminum/Alcoa was the corporate parent of Eskimo Pie from 1935 until the firm spun it off in 1991. I would drop the reference if this were not such memorably weird trivia, and if it did not give me an excuse to post a Reynolds ad.

"You were saying, Colonel? I, unh, wasn't paying attention." 

Of these brands, I am going to pick out Eggo as deserving of more attention. Ice cream novelties pretty much sell themselves. "Minute Maid" and "TV Dinners" suggest a bit of nervousness. The manufacturer feels a need to sell the product a bit. "Eggo waffles," though, is weird. The Dorsas seem to have been thinking about as far along into niche marketing as it is possible to imagine. Do you like waffles? Do you make them at home? Do you freeze left over waffles and thaw them out in the toaster? Then you probably have experienced the mess and annoyance of toasting square-cornered waffles. 

So instead of the convenience and economy of a reheated homemade waffle, go to the grocery store and buy our circular ones! It is not an obvious innovation, and frozen waffles are a very bulky product to wedge into the freezer display. But that's why consumer innovation is hard. Looking back, the Dorsa's investment is a dead cinch. Looking forward from 1952, I am sure that I would take the same cynical tone as I do over, say, the Google Auto-Car. (If your main selling point is that the car is going to use AI pathing alogorithms to park itself, I can only ask whether I am the only human being on Earth who has played one of these new-fangled "computer games," with their AI opponents marching sentries and armies around in circles.)

I am not going to try to tease a general theory out of all of this, but I am going to suggest that the path to consumer innovation in 1953 is an indirect one that leads through World War II, and, more specifically, through Big Week. 

So here, again, thanks to Randy Wilson's fine work, is a diagramme from Nicholas Mastroangelo's original January 1945 design analysis of the P-47:

A turbosupercharger is a pretty basic concept. Any combustion engine loses a proportion of its available energy in the exhaust gas. So why not try to recover it by reheat or mechanically, with a turbine wheel in the exhaust stream? The obvious answer to this is that impeding the exhaust stream will affect the engine. Ejection stubs are much simpler, and the engineer does not have to worry about the effects of external variables such as atmospheric pressure and temperature and internal ones such as engine speed and mixture setting. Given that you are virtually solving the same problem with a jet turbine as you are with a turbosupercharger, it would seem as though the turbo could be ruled out in advance as an engineering dead end, permitting the air force to focus on mechanical superchargers instead. That is, in fact, what happened everywhere in the world except the United States, and the dreadful mechanical record of the P-38 leaves me finding it hard to avoid the conclusion that the USAAC ended up dropping money into Sanford Moss's work because GE wanted it, with actual technical feasibility a secondary issue at best. The USN's weird diversion through direct-electrical transmission suggests the same story, and at this point one is tempted to go off on a rant about the deleterious effect of corporate influence on defence spending, etc, etc. 

Back up a bit: at the time that Moss started work on the turbo, United States aircraft, and most aircraft, were content to take their electrical power off windmill vanes stuck directly into the air stream. By the early 1930s, this was getting to be a problem from a number of fronts. Well before these innovations show up on working airscrews, you have windmill vane makers experimenting with variable pitch and deicing gear. The next step is a 6V DC system run off a battery charged by a DC generator on the engine, just like in a car. As the demand for electrical supply increases, we get a 12 volt, then a 27v DC supply in the B-17 and B-24, with a 120v supply coming on in the B-29. 

With increasing power demand, and also increasingly sensitive equipment, there is also a requirement for better regulated power and safer circuits. Indeed, in American aircraft, electrical power is taken off and used to run the amplidynes that synchronise the engines through the constant speed units on the airscrews, creating one of those neat recursive elements that electrical engineers love.

Alternate power supplies are experimented with, including AC generators taking off from the engines and separate generator units. Burning avgas within an aircraft in an auxiliary installation soon proves to be challenging. Gas (and air) is delivered at whatever altitude/pressure/temperature that the aircraft is at, and output varies considerably. While generator builders are worrying about this, an early Air Force effort to provide heat to the crews is running into the same problems. 

   This heater unit is entirely satisfactory under high altitude conditions, and weighs "only" 6lbs! (I am guessing that there is a lost works joke here, in that the girl holding it is petite.) 

So, while the electrical engineers and the heating engineers are struggling, Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Co. is tasked with cleaning up GE's legacy problems and make the  turbo work. 

The key here is the "waste gate," which controls the amount of exhaust gas admitted into the turbo in order to maintain constant manifold pressure.

It is pretty complicated, but it the control unit, the "Pressuretrol" is even more complicated. As the Honeywell team modestly points out, a stable control unit for such a volatile mechanical system is a very complicated thing to implement, and they don't have the luxury of putting an arrow into their design: "Insert artificial brain here." They have to build the control unit they need out of electrical circuits.

How a furnace thermometer company in Minneapolis won World War II. 

But why a furnace regulator company? Because the problem here is one of taking air at a wide range of temperatures, thus pressures and humidities and using it to create just exactly the precise amount of power at the far end. As the Honeywell engineers point out, this is not a one-and-done process, either. As engines get worked in and slowly succumb to massive lead attack if not general aging, technicians will have to adjust these circuits on the bench to make sure that the turbochargers continue to work. We are a week past the moment when Eighth Air Force officially gave up on the P-38, but the hercs are on top of the B-17 and the P-47. 

They are learning, on the job, to take these equipments and use them to deliver constant power across widely varying conditions. But instead of "power" I want, for just a second, to say instead "refrigeration," because, effectively, they are the same jobs.

If GE did use its lobbying clout to persuade Wright Field to embrace the turbocharger over the mechanical supercharger, than it certainly saddled America with a technological problem that it did not strictly need as it mobilised to fight World War II. But, in the long run, who cares? America solved it, and won Big Week. 

And then it went on to build the industrial facilities to make frozen waffles by the millions, and the retail facilities to store and display them. 

Notable people in the American aviation industry in 1944. One-sixth female. Not bad for 2014....
You will have noticed that I am anticipating Valentine's  Day a bit here, in the interest of highlighting the pivot from the warmaking prowess of fighter planes to the domestic comfort of frozen convenience foods. At the risk of descending into good old fashioned "two spheres" gender essentialism, I am going to suggest that there is probably a nexus between the domestic hijacking of high technology and the lost history of the days when women like Mrs. Velda Snyder ran American industry. (Allowing that the women of 1944 were even more inclined to let themselves slip into the background than they are today, I doubt that "ran" is much of an exaggeration.) 

*The joke is a bit of cliche by now, but I think I need to give credit to either Allen Varney or Steve Jackson's Illuminati. The link goes somewhere else entirely. 

No comments:

Post a Comment