Tilting at Windmills. A Reading of a Wind Turbine By Charlotte Ebel. At the Teachers as Scholars Institute held at Princeton in 2005, Professor Michael S. Mahoney challenged the participants to engage in a process that he called “reading a machine.”. Introduction.
Tilting at Windmills
A Reading of a Wind Turbine
In the opening paragraph of his article by that name, he quoted the title of a paper presented by R.W. Hamming at the International Conference on the History of Computing in 1976: “We would know what they thought when they did it.”
But my literary instincts were so strong to overcome. My whole, long career has been explicating texts, parsing sentences, scanning poems, analyzing statutes, “mining” judicial opinions.
Words are my nuts, bolts, transmissions, motors, governors, pulleys, ailerons, but when it comes to machines, my curiosity surpasses my ken. I suppose it would not be true curiosity if it were not so. What I mean is this is both my strength and my weakness.
Mahoney goes on to elucidate in his article the point that the practice of science and the literature of science do not necessarily coincide. He avers that early in his career, he had “cast about for the primary sources of technology since the Renaissance,” a quest which he discontinued when he realized that “the great ideas we were seeking did not lie in books. They lay in objects.”
We were awed by their height, enchanted by their grace, mesmerized by their sound – a whir, a whoosh, a blade cutting air, but not as its sharp severance by a sword, rather like a graceful diver cutting through the surface of the water.
I thought of a line in a book I used to read the children, Gilberto and the Wind: “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I. But when the leaves blow down the street, the wind is passing by.”
Marie Hall Ets, Gilberto and the Wind
No leaves on this treeless plain, but still one knew the wind was passing by from the rhythmical cosmic whisper of these turbines.
We wanted to think then that it was the wind telling us of some magical future when the production of energy no longer polluted our atmosphere but instead gave us elegant machines that through their rhythmic gymnastics unfurled a stream of wind-borne electricity to power our lives.
Now in this course, I ask myself how they came to be, these turbines.
Their obvious antecedents were the windmills.
my fascination with Dutch windmills when I read Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.
I thought about . . .
A wind turbine is an impressive structure.
A typical height for a commercial turbine tower is about 230 feet.
This model has three blades.
The blades are very smooth so that the wind may pass easily over them.
They are very strong so as not to break in the wind.
They are aerodynamic in design.
They are connected to a shaft that turns the dynamo inside the nacelle.
The blades are routinely washed to keep them clean. Any cracks are filled to keep them smooth.
The blades scoop up the wind and use its power to turn the gears.
The gears make the high speed shaft turn approx. 50x faster than the low-speed shaft.
The high-speed shaft turns the dynamo to produce electricity.
If the wind speed becomes too fast, the controller computer shuts down the turbine.
A cooling mechanism keeps the generator from overheating while it is working so fast.
The yaw mechanism orients the rotor to the wind.
This model turbine is very expensive and complex.
It is intended for use by a commercial supplier, such as an electric company. It is part of a system.
Notice that the wind turbines in this picture have lattice towers.
A 1,500-watt wind turbine provides this home in Colorado with electricity. Credit: Jim Green
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Some consumers, especially in remote locations, install small wind turbines to serve their residence individually.
Where’s wind energy going?
On reading a machine
This project has undergone numerous transmogrifications during the two weeks of the Teachers as Scholars Seminar. Each day Aeolus seemed to release research winds from a different direction. I sometimes doubted the ability of my brain to yaw sufficiently in the right direction.
On the last day of class before presentations, two remarks collided with a scene I had observed on the previous day’s field trip to the National Museum of History and created a spark that illuminated a creed I have long held.
The first remark occurred when we were discussing the history of the computer. After detailing how memory systems were created, the professor commented that this mimicked some human brain functions, and he quoted Chomsky on the mysteries of language learning and the many cognitive secrets that lie embedded in our universal grammar. He concluded by observing thatthe human brain is
the greatest machine of all.
The field trip to the National Museum of History intervened between the first and second remark. We were looking at an early machine. Someone identified a piston. Another remarked how the heavy leather belt moved from one wheel to another to shift gears. The professor stitched together our random
observations on mechanisms and purpose, explaining the full operation of the machine . . ., but I was having trouble focusing on the discussion. My attention was diverted to “reading the machine” I saw in the top, back corner of the exhibit area: a video camera, its red, glowing eye trained on the spectator positions where we were standing.
The second remark had a touching wistfulness. It grew out of a discussion between the professor and a student, a continuation actually, of our attention to the question of why women are not more successful as computer programmers. The comments were touching on interrupted careers, day care, maternity/paternity leave. It’s too bad,
said the professor, and I paraphrase, that we haven’t been more creative, more successful at solving this problem in a way that is fair to all, because, after all, raising our children is probably the most important thing many of us ever do. These molecules of conversation kept bonding together as I sat for a while after class on a bench outside.
Human brain = greatest machine
I wanted to stand before you today and say, “Here is my machine. Read it.” I thought of this together with the statement from Marx that the professor likes to quote to the effect that when the new first appears, it appears in the guise of the old. When one grasps what is new it takes a form more appropriate to it.
Our children are like us until they realize what is new and unique about themselves and then many of our traits – and one hopes the bad ones – disappear. Are we able to read what is new and improved about each one’s machine?
We have all of us often asserted in class that we will never afterwards look at objects the same. We shall always be analyzing, probing, touching them and asking: For what purpose are they made? Who is the intended user? But just as I shall be reading machines, I shall also look at my fellow man and woman, especially
my students, analytically, searchingly, trying to read each “machine”, and I shall, through my actions, forever be imploring the parents of the children entrusted to me: “Read my machine at work. Observe all its moving parts. See how I am forever shifting gears, turning dynamos, transmitting energy to light up what is unique and glorious in this child.” After all, it’s our most important work!
Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde…St. Exupery,Le Petit Prince (45)
The following are links to some excellent sites for teachers and students: