Category: engineering

Mule Day

I was travelling west on Highway 78 this past Saturday going through Washington, GA. Unlike all the hapless Georgia fans going to the slaughter in Athens, I had the good sense to stop at Mule Day at the Callaway Plantation. There’s a little bit of everything there – old mechanical things, things that go bang, animals, old architecture, and good food.

Here’s just a few pictures to give you a flavor of the day. Click to embiggen.

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Revolutionary era backwoodsman firing a flintlock. This is the first picture I’ve ever been able to take this close to ignition. Normally there are two separate puffs of smoke floating off away from the rifle.

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John Deere Model E Hit and Miss engine making ice cream. There was no hidden electric motor plugged into a wild currant bush ( sorry – old Euell Gibbons joke ) spinning the churn – it was being done as Mr. Deere intended it. And in case you were wondering, yes, the ice cream was excellent.

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Allis Chalmers Model G. I thought the rear mounted engine was cool.

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My dad has talked about plowing with mules when he was a teenager. I was hoping I’d have a chance to try this year and I did. The main thing to remember is to put as little lateral pressure as possible on the plow – it’s real easy to overcorrect. I did the math later and figured that you might be able to plow about 3 acres in a 12 hour day. The organizers brought over a John Deer Model B after we all had a chance to play and finished plowing lots faster than the mules were going. It helps you understand how easy it was for farmers in the 1920’s to decide to give up the mules and buy a tractor.

If you’re wondering about the guy holding the reins, let’s just say that the mules got a little skittish when the Confederate reenactors fired their cannon.

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Sheep dog demonstration. They herd ducks as well.

Final picture of the day:

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I was trying to get a close up of some of the harness on the mules from about 50 feet away. I didn’t notice until downloading the picture what was in the background. Yes, 20th century aviation technology that’s framed by important 19th century agricultural technology. I wouldn’t have been able to take that on purpose in a million years.

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And it may just be incompetence

I was reading today about why engineering is inherently more honest than science and disagreed with a commenter that this was so.

Thinking about it reminded me of a story. I can tell it here without getting into trouble because no one will ever see it.

I’ve known brilliant engineers with novel inventions who should never have been trusted to run a lemonade stand. The best example was a PhD civil engineer I used as a contractor once. Instead of doing his part of the project the traditional way, we allowed him to use his proprietary method. This worked great technically but not so well from a business perspective. Shortly after paying the PhD, we started getting calls from his subcontractors. They had not been fully paid. By the time we paid the subcontractors, it would have been cheaper for us to do it the old fashioned way. I never did figure out whether that PhD was a business idiot for not being able to pay his subcontractors because he priced his product too low or a crook with no intention of ever paying his subs.

The same thing applies to Solyndra. They had a novel technology that looked great when the price of silicon was high. Then they built a new fabrication plant just as the price of silicon was falling. Did they really believe that they could continue to compete in a changing market or were they just trying to ride the gravy train as long as possible? Who knows? What is certain that honest engineering got them in the end.