Friday, February 22, 2019

A Technological Appendix to Postblogging Technology, December 1948, I: An Embarrassment of Riches

I was going to move directly on to the next postblogging installment when my long weekend finally begins on Wednesday (Thursday? I'm  a bit shell-shocked on my eighth working day in a row, especially with a shift from 5am to 4pm starts in the middle. Guess when I did all my writing?), but there's something of an embarrassment of riches in this last installment, and I don't just mean the first publicity press image of a would-be business celebrity photographed in a leather jacket versus three-piece-suit formal wear. It's not quite Brando's borderline fetish outfit , but the times, they are for sure changing.

 (For no particular reason.)

Here's another way that they're changing:

This looks like it is from Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, but I doubt that it is original there, or in Kennedy. It would look even better in a chart, particularly with the German production shooting for the stratosphere in 1938, compared with the all but stagnant British totals. It's just as well that the chart cuts off there. British steel production doubling in a decade would not fit the thesis well. Neither would a generation of stagnant American production, although Germany's climb back to Herman Goering Werke-levels of production by the mid-1950s is a bit more on the nose. It is probably time to talk about productivity and innovation in steel. 

Aside from fashion and steel, this week sees the first glimmerings of the Xerox, and a weird digression into "computers" by the Goodyear Corporation. Arguably, if you were living in 1948, the imminent fall of the Republic of China and an American recession would have been more important at the time, with side order of world(ish) war to follow, culminating, as far as bridging the years go, with the Truman Administration's failed National Emergency in steel. 

But let's go with what we've got.

So, being a little confused at the end of that Fortune magazine, I had UBC haul United States Steel's classic Making, Shaping and Treatment of Steel out of storage. The robot rebellion being currently on hold due to a UN-brokered ceasefire, I was able to get hold of the 1971 edition. Look, facts!

A million tons of steel is so much steel. And at 250 tons a melt, twenty thousand tons a cargo, too. The idea of China producing 808 million tons in a single year is mind boggling. That's a lot of current to do it all electrically!
Earliest steelmaking relied on blast furnaces to reduce iron ore to high carbon pig iron, which was then "fined" into wrought iron, which was then turned into steel by some kind of crucible or cementation process. This was the traditional American as well as European industry, which changed with the introduction of the Bessemer process (leaving some patent trolling aside), which finally put the traditional "air boiling" method of decarbonising molten iron (producing steel as the iron ore melts and deoxidises as the carbon content reaches saturation, lowering the melting temperature) in a crucible into a mass production basis. The Bessemer process was followed by Siemen's open hearth method, in which a mix of pig iron, steel scrap and iron ore has the bejezus heated out of it by a blast of hot gas. 

The reason I go into this detail is that I hadn't fully grasped that the modern industry, with its ubiquitous, massive blast furnaces for the creation of huge quantities of pig iron isn't the traditional infrastructure of iron and steelmaking. Although blast furnaces did exist in plenty, the rise of open hearth steel called for the construction of many new ones; and, although they followed traditional construction practice and design, they were sited to meet the needs of a new mass industry. In other words, in order to make steel by the millions of tons, they were located along the Great Lakes waterway to exploit first the Menabi Range, and later the Labrador deposits, which began delivering commercially in 1954 --an important incentive, I would imagine, for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which as of 1948 looks like just another utopian scheme.

It is depressing, but unsurprising that when George Montagu Black died in June of 1976, the distillery company executive's portfolio proved to hold 22% of Ravelston, which controlled 61% of Argus, which had a "large stake" in Hollinger, which controlled Labrador Mining. Apart from the connection with Hanna Mining, already noted, my point is that one of Black's heirs, the erstwhile Lord Conrad, has the second largest iron ore play in North America buried way down in the sock drawer of his portfolio, and has spent his public career doing his best to ensure that nothing like the St. Lawrence Seaway ever happens again. Talk about pulling the ladder up after yourself! Not, I suspect, that Black is against the Seaway and projects like it, so long as they only happen in the past. 

So that sets something of a context for the new No.5 blast furnace at the Corrigan McKinney Works of Republic steel, the first, as Fortune notes, to work at above-atmospheric "top pressure."

There is a rich, political history to be mined here. Republic Steel was one of the major players in "Little Steel," and the horrific 1937 Little Steel Strike. Company President, Charles M. White, was one of a series of Republic Steel union busters, and a particular bete noire for New Deal politicians. Extraordinarily, the War Assets Administration built a $28 million blast furnace (No.5) at his works, in order to boost war production. In 1948, White tried to bluff the feds into letting him have it at pennies on the dollar, only to have the Truman Administration gleefully sell to Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer. Kaiser, in particular, was one of the New Deal's go-to expediters, which leaves the arrangement reeks of being a political fix. Perhaps White expected to be saved by an incoming Dewey Administration. Oops!
In terms of new technologies, the WAA may have been sold a bill of goods. Top pressure does help. Increasing the wind rate produces a lifting effect, as the onrushing gases blow upward through the burden of coal, flux, sinter, scrap and iron ore. The lifting effect impedes the settling of the burden and leads to the melt lasting longer than necessary. A septum valve in the top allows for a higher pressure, preventing the lifting effect. The arrangement needs to be coupled with a recovery turbine for full efficiency, and the top gasses need to be filtered, or "de-dusted," but all of this is now standard practice, after some thirty years of gradual retrofitting of the various parts of the tops of various blast furnaces to withstand the higher pressures. 

The "bill of goods" here is the promise of higher chemical efficiency, signalled by the involvement of chemical engineering consultancy Arthur D. Little. I find no mention of the "Gruner Equations" in the modern literature, although Gruner has given his name to a common form of iron ore. 

One of the strange things about the discussion as of 1948 is the somewhat schizophrenic discussion of efficiency and decadence in iron and steel. One of the motivating reasons for the Kaiser-Frazer bid for Cleveland Number 5 is the acute shortage of pig iron for the company's own foundries. Iron and steel shortages are seriously hampering the auto industry, and a secure supply might allow Kaiser-Frazer to overtake the Big Three. It was this shortage, and the industry's unwillingness to invest, that led the WAA to build Number 5 in the first place. In the postwar era, consumers and the government continue to press for investment. There is, "Gruner Equations" notwithstanding, plenty of room for improvements. It is right now being realised that if the humidity of input air is properly controlled, there is considerable room for raising the temperature of the hot-blast. We are still four years out from the denouement of this controversy, Truman's 1952 National Emergency order seizing control of the steel industry to head off a national steel strike. We'll have plenty of time to explore that, and I've a hunch that by 2022 the President's National Emergency powers are going to be even more topical than they are right now.

What is in danger of becoming a lost  moment in time is that crystalline instant in the winter of 1948/9 when one was allowed to argue that the British steel industry was modern and progressive. As often, Fortune takes a kinder view of British industry than The Economist, distant perhaps adding disinterest. It is hard to argue with either the statistics of rising efficiency or the rapidly increasing output of the industry.
There's nothing like the dead wagon, or, in this case, imminent nationalisation, to encourage the industry (and, more importantly, the business press) to notice that it's actually feeling fine. It won't last, but the downward curve is not yet in sight, and it'll be interesting to see it arrive. 

Okay, that's one thing. The next thing is the Xerox 914.
I haven't much to add to Wikipedia. The 914 might be one of the most famous office machines in history. It's also more than a decade away. Before pivoting to the more exciting subject of a coal mole and inadvertently breaking fashion news (unless the actual fashion press has already broken the "leather jacket" story), Fortune just covers off the Carlson/Battelle/Haloid patents. I feel comfortable in calling this patent trolling in that the basic concept is the basis of all of those innovators trying to send newspapers by fax, and by the fact that Carlson, a patent attorney, no less, was relying on Selenyi's earlier work. I don't think there's any actual dishonesty here. Selenyi lived to 1954, more than long enough to seek redress in the courts. For the purposes of patent law, Carlson had to present himself as an American inventor. That doesn't mean that Selenyi wasn't satisfied in private. 

What's significantly more astonishing here is the role of the Rank Organisation in making the 914 possible. Xerox actually started out as a joint venture of Rank and Haloid. In some ways, a lens capable of projecting a non-distorted flat 9x14" image onto a 9x14" screen might be the most remarkable aspect of the machine, although it is likely to go unremarked given that the lens isn't likely to fail. Most peoples' frustrations with the early Xeroxes have to do with paper jams leading to fires. Nowadays, we just deal with paper jams. The lens always worked --dirty though they may have been. I don't notice that anyone has even noticed that this might have been hard. But, then, I do not notice that computing optics has received much attention in the popular press. I doubt that this Wikipedia introduction to the subject is going to change that, either!  This is the third time that the Rank Organisation has come up in these Appendices. They were also involved in aerial navigation and the first Ferranti computers, it might be recalled. What is up with those guys.
GEDA 2s, actually, but the museum doesn't have an
assembled GEDA 1. 

Finally, you've got your Goodyear computer, which is apparently actually the GEDA commutator stabilisation system, "Developed to automatically balance all of the amplifiers by using a motor driven commutator switch which sampled the input grid of each amplifier in turn." Which you very nearly need the Fortune translation to understand. 

It's for solving some partial differential equations. Computing, if you will. The Goodyear museum site, linked above, explains the GEDA as being inspired by Goodyear's work with early missiles, and it was originally paid for by the Air Force, but the main early customer appears to have been the Frankford Arsenal, which bought the GEDA bank above, to do external and internal ballistics. A department of the Ordnance called the Fire Control and Ammunition Engineers operated at the Frankford Arsenal until it was privatised and the last members were transferred to New Jersey. (An arsenal that hasn't been privatised! Hooray!) I would imagine that they were a great deal more interested in  gun projectiles than in missiles, although the two fields converged in the 1960s as they worked on laser-guided munitions. That being said, by the late '50s Goodyear had an even more impressive computing centre with numerous additional GEDA units. I know this because I scrolled down at Doug Coward's Analog Museum, at the link. 

Then analog was beaten out by digital, the end. Again, though, the down curve isn't even vaguely in sight in 1948. From the foreshortened viewpoint of 2018, it is the cultural history that comes to the fore. The world continues to be prepared for the computer age well ahead of the actual computer. 

Which is as much as I want to say here, considering that Norbert Wiener gets a fawning review in the 27 December Time, coming up next. (No spoilers, but it's safe to say that everyone's job is on the line as automation advances into the sacrosanct territory of "mind" and "brain." Scary, boys and girls!)

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