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Thinking Outside the Boat

April 19, 2013

Scientists work with theories all the time. We're constantly framing our own theories, and we do this carefully, since we're ever mindful that they will be reviewed by other scientists. We never trust our theories unless they are backed by considerable evidence, usually by experiment. That's why we always chuckle at business theories, which are usually hand-waving cloaked in a three-piece suit.

One business theory, which I hope has passed out of favor, is the idea that all activities can be reduced to a process. Even a marginal employee can do great things if he or she would just follow the process. Activities amenable to a process are not just assembly line tasks. In the corporate mindset, you can even innovate and invent by following a process.

Computer program flow chart

The supposed "process" for writing a computer program is to start with a flowchart and then code from it.

It's well known that programmers ignore the process and just code.

(Flow chart created by the author using Open Office.)

While the common man would have some trouble creating a silk purse from a sow's ear, or inventing a machine to produce such purses rapidly, technically competent individuals have found that TRIZ, a structured process for invention, can be useful. The power of TRIZ lies in the principle that you need to dig down to the essentials of a problem in order to discover a unique solution. This usually involves a resolution of contradictions, such as removing material to save weight will also cause a reduction in strength.

One other good piece of advice taught by TRIZ is to look for solutions to similar problems. If your object is to polish bowling balls, a slightly modified apple-polishing process might work just fine. Looking at the history of wheeled transportation, we somehow went from the horse-and-buggy case in which the motor was external to the vehicle, to the case in which the motor is integral to the vehicle. Might there now be some advantage to going back to the external motor case?

Norwegian-American inventor, Ole Evinrude (1877-1934), who was born on this date in 1877, may have entertained such an idea when he invented the first practical outboard motor in 1907.[1-3] Evinrude's family settled in Wisconsin after emigrating from Norway, and he worked as a machinist in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Chicago. During a picnic in 1906 with his future wife, Evinrude rowed five miles in the summer's heat to get ice cream. He realized on that trip that a gasoline engine would be a good accessory for a rowboat.

With much practical experience in hand, he co-founded the custom engine firm Clemick & Evinrude, and by 1909 the Evinrude Motor Company was founded in Milwaukee. Evinrude's idea still survives in Evinrude Outboard Motors, which is owned by Bombardier Recreational Products. Figures 1 and 2 from US Patent No. 1,001,260, 'Marine Propulsion Mechanism,' by Ole Evinrude (August 22, 1911)

Figures 1 and 2 from US Patent No. 1,001,260, "Marine Propulsion Mechanism," by Ole Evinrude (August 22, 1911)

Evinrude's prototype two-cycle engine, in which oil and gasoline are mixed, had a weight of 62-pounds, and it developed 1-1/2 horsepower. It was started by a crank attached to a flywheel, as can be seen in the figure.

Evinrude's wife said it looked like a coffee grinder.[1]

(via Google Patents.)[3)]

Richard Edler von Mises (1883-1953), who was a Professor of Aerodynamics and Applied Mathematics at Harvard University, was also born on this date in 1883. Von Mises is well known to materials scientists for his work on solid mechanics, especially for the von Mises yield criterion; but, he is known, also, in aerodynamics, aeronautics, statistics and probability theory.

Von Mises was the first to explicate the birthday problem, which I wrote about in a previous article (The Birthday Problem, August 4, 2010). The birthday problem is simply stated - How many people do you need in a room, such that it's more likely than not that two of them have the same birthday?

It's important to realize that we don't insist that any person has a particular birthday; or, that any person has the same birthday as one particular person. We're just interested in the probability that any two people will have the same birthday. The surprising result, as derived in my previous article, is that it takes just 23 people to have a 50.7% probability that two will have the same birthday.

Figure caption

Richard von Mises

Von Mises was an applied mathematician who made important contributions to many engineering fields.

Von Mises was born on this date in 1883.

(Photo by Konrad Jacobs, Erlangen, from Wikimedia Commons, modified for artistic effect.)

Also born on this date, with Swedish ancestors just East of Evinrude's Norway, is the American chemist, Glenn Seaborg (1912-1999), the only person having a chemical element publicly named in his honor during his lifetime (seaborgium, Sg, atomic number 106). Working at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, he was the only person to have a unique "chemical address;" namely, seaborgium, lawrencium, berkelium, californium, americium.

Seaborg was principal discoverer or co-discoverer of ten elements: plutonium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium and seaborgium. For such dedication to his science, Seaborg shared the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Edwin McMillan "for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements."[4]

Seaborg also discerned the proper placement of the actinide series elements in the periodic table, and he was chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971. Seaborg advocated peaceful uses of radionuclides for power generation and medical applications, and he contributed to passage of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He was author or coauthor of more than 500 scientific publications and fifty books.

Glenn T. Seaborg with US President John F. Kennedy

Glenn T. Seaborg, as Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, with US President, John F. Kennedy, at AEC headquarters, Germantown, Maryland, February 16, 1961.

(US Atomic Energy Commission photograph by Elton P. Lord, via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Ole Evinrude (1877-1934) - Outboard boat motor, Inventor of the Week Archive, Lemelson-MIT Program, January, 1999.
  2. Evinrude, Dictionary of Wisconsin History, Wisconsin Historical Society
  3. Ole Evinrude, "Marine Propulsion Mechanism," US Patent No. 1,001,260, August 22, 1911 (via Google Patents).
  4. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1951 - Edwin M. McMillan, Glenn T. Seaborg, Nobelprize.org.

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