07/02/2019

On the trail of forgotten engineers

Have you ever heard of Mary Jackson, Mária Telkes, François Cavé or Marc Seguin? What inventions and feats of engineering lie behind the names of Fulgence Bienvenüe or Henri Édouard Tresca? Just like Nikola Tesla, who was brought out of the shadows by the author Robert Lomas, all of these men and women are unsung heroes of engineering. Read on for some facts and anecdotes that set the record straight.

Imagine you’re on a TV quiz-show and the presenter is about to read out the clues for you to find an “Engineer”. So here we go: “In 1841, he invented a crane capable of lifting a load of over 20 tonnes. He built ships, a submarine and mechanical bellows for blast furnaces as well as designing six steam locomotives for the Paris-Saint Germain railway line in 1837. Who is he?” Not many contestants today would buzz in with the right answer: François Cavé. And yet in the middle of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, this engineer from north-east France helped shape the country’s mechanical industry. In 1840, he even employed up to 600 workers in his workshops in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris.

François Cavé is by no means history’s only forgotten engineer. Before the publication in 1999 of Robert Lomas’ book, The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Electricity, most people didn’t have the foggiest idea who this Tesla was. Lomas wrote: “Everybody knows that Thomas Edison devised electric light, that Guglielmo Marconi thought up radio and George Westinghouse built the world’s first hydro-electric power station. Everyone knows these ‘facts’ but they are wrong. The man who dreamt up these things […] was Nikola Tesla […] His life story is an extraordinary series of scientific triumphs followed by a catalog of personal disasters. Perpetually unlucky and exploited by everyone around him, credit for Tesla’s work was appropriated by several of the West’s most famous entrepreneurs”. It took the curiosity and passion of the writer and physicist Robert Lomas as well as the help of a rich genius, Elon Musk, to give this Serbian-American engineer his rightful place in history.

Behind the names there’s a legacy

There are other names of ingenious minds that ring bells for scientists and tourists but not many people know how they came to feature on the engineering wall of fame. Fulgence Bienvenüe, for example. Parisians and people passing through Montparnasse station will associate him with the metro stop that bears his name. Others will know that in fact he oversaw the construction of the first lines of the Paris Metro. That is a fine accomplishment in itself, but Mr. Bienvenüe did much more….

Born in Brittany and a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique and Ponts et Chaussées engineering schools in Paris, Fulgence Bienvenüe worked on the creation of the Paris-Strasbourg railway line, supervised the laying of Paris’s avenue de la République, created the Buttes-Chaumont park and designed a funicular tramway in the Belleville quarter of the French capital. He was also responsible for the reconstruction of the Saint-Denis canal and the enlargement of the Ourcq canal in Paris.

In the same way, the legacy left by Marc Seguin and Henri Édouard Tresca is much better known than their names. A handful of specialists and other well-informed people would be able to say “Of course – the Seguin locomotive! And Tresca’s criterion!” but most wouldn’t have a clue who they are. Let’s go back about two centuries then, heading first to the region of Lyon. It was there, in 1825, that Marc Seguin designed and built Europe’s first major suspension bridge, at Tournon-sur-Rhône, before going on to revolutionise steam locomotion thanks to his invention of the tubular boiler. Seguin’s first locomotive even took its first “steps” on the Saint-Étienne-Lyon line a few days before George Stephenson’s Rocket, on 1 October 1829. These engineering feats were acknowledged by the French government of the time, though, as Marc Seguin is one of the 72 French scientists, engineers and mathematicians whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.

The legacy is just as impressive and society’s memory is just as short for Henri Édouard Tresca. Born in 1814 in Dunkirk, this engineer – whose name is also inscribed on the Eiffel Tower – came up with one of the two main failure criteria used today for ductile materials. And he was also a creator of the meter bar that served as the first standard of length for the metric system. Several prototype bars were made out of a particularly strong alloy and had a cross section shaped like a modified letter X, designed by Tresca and called the “Tresca section”. One of these bars was selected as the International Meter.

Great engineers coming out of the shadows

In this quest for history’s forgotten engineers, women’s talents are probably the most neglected of all.

Once again, we can look to the work and research carried out by our contemporaries to shed some light on this issue. In his film, Hidden Figures, Theodore Melfi chronicles Mary Jackson’s enormous contribution to the space race, and particularly her work for the 1962 flight when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Mary Jackson – NASA’s first black female engineer – was a genius mathematician and one of the world’s first computer specialists. She is best known in engineering circles for the results of her research on supersonic wind tunnels and her analysis of the aerodynamic effects of flights travelling above the speed of sound.

Then there is Mary Sherman Morgan – a rocket fuel scientist. Her contribution to engineering was perhaps recognized in her lifetime, but her name is little known by the public, even among the scientific community. Employed in the 1950s by North American Aviation, she was for many years the only woman among the 900 engineers working at Rocketdyne Division. While there she designed a new liquid fuel, called Hydyne, which powered the USA’s Jupiter C rocket.

And, in today’s age of energy transition and renewable energy how could we not mention Mária Telkes. Born in 1900 in Hungary, this engineer and biophysicist participated in pioneering the technologies to convert and store solar power. In 1948, together with the architect Eleanor Raymond, she designed the first solar-heated house. The Telkes system consists of two glazed panels separated by an air cavity. The glazing captures the sun’s rays which heats the air in the cavity and the air is then blown by ventilators into storage compartments filled with sodium sulphate placed in the walls of the house. An ingenious, green radiator system!

All of these names and stories remind us how the wheels of progress have been turned by engineers’ inventions. And while few geniuses ever become famous, they leave their research and creations behind, inspiring the engineers of both today and the future.

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