Sunday, June 19, 2011

Open Your Mind

As we as a species hurdle forward into time, fashions move like a wave, or series of waves. From fad to faux pas, every concoction of a garment has been in style at least once. And the list of things that have fallen out of favor is exponentially larger. And while some items are merely disliked, such as bell-bottoms, others will downright provoke an attack.

Pendulum Wave Series

Fur is not only unpopular, but may land you splashed with red paint by a fervent activist (no pun intended); coat rendered unrepairable. Which is a terrible waste, considering animals died for its creation. But what we may not remember, or may not realize, is that the fur coat now dripping in candy-apple latex has a deeper, more interesting role in history than simply being draped over Kim Cattrall as she saunters down some red carpet somewhere unimportant.

Americans tend to think of the Industrial Revolution as the real birth of this nation. Or more so as the part where things get interesting. In our minds the computer sitting on the desk in front of us right now was born out of those first hulking steam engines and inventors working by candle-light late into the night. American business as we know it was thrust through the loins of early machines; later wrung through corporate legislation and enough paperwork to dry the ocean. So the Industrial Revolution is where it all happened... or is it?

The Industrial Revolution was characterized by three major phases, or shifts that had to take place to allow it to take a step forward, and those phases were: Transportation being expanded, electricity becoming harnessed, and the refinement of industrial processes, tools and fuels. Obviously, each step can be covered in quite detail, but the first step is where we want to point our focus: Transportation.

This is where we jump back to that fur coat on Kim Cattrall. Before interstate highways, byways, streets, railroads and even dirt roads there was only really one way to get around, and really only a handful of people that knew this land front to back. The earliest fur traders were French explorers landing in (what is now) Canada in the 1500s. As an act of goodwill, they gifted local natives tea kettles, knives and the like, which prompted the natives to gift in exchange things they considered high in value, which were furs. And boy were they!

Early Fur Trader

That single act set in motion the exploration of North America (by white men) and arguably laid the groundwork for the entire American Industrial Revolution. The French learned the fur trade routes and as the industry grew, fur became more scarce and traders pushed further west in search of more product. A hearty trade industry was also reason enough for many Europeans to take the plunge and move to the Americas. By the 1800s the Russians were trapping in Alaska and Lewis and Clark punched through the breadbasket and out to the Pacific. The transportation phase had reached the first checkpoint. However, it wasn't easy to get there. For all these explorers the paths were many but the vehicles few. Horses wouldn't be introduced to North America for some time (although the Conquistadors were shipping them to South America in the 15th and 16th centuries) so if you wanted to move around on land, you walked (and carried all your gear). The fastest way, bar far, to cover as much ground as necessary was by river and canoe.

The Route of Lewis & Clark

In French Canada, the men who traversed these rugged routes (even as late as the 1960s) were known as The Voyageurs. Rugged men, sailors of sorts, but instead of canvas, masts and lines their conveyance was paddles and Freighter Canoes.  25 feet long and capable of portaging 15 men and thousands of pounds of gear, The Voyageurs paddle for up to 15 hours per day, for months on end. The short film of the same name is a must see.

Typically made of birch bark by Native American tribesmen, these birch canoes are works of art. The birch bark that covers them is nearly paper thin, but it is strong, and naturally waterproof. The Natives sourced all their materials from the land around them in ingenious ways. Pine trees, known for their thick, sticky sap, lent a hand in the creation of a resinous tar-like substance that was used to bond and further waterproof the canoe. Spruce roots, flexible yet high in tensile strength made for perfect lashings after being boiled in the pine solution. The gunwales and ribs were made of spruce wood as well. The construction methods also gave way to the invention of specialized tools, such as the crooked knife.

The canoe is truly an organic form, it is the Occam's Razor of boats. There are as many different designs of canoe as there are bodies of water to paddle them on. Speaking in terms of denotation, all small, narrow, man powered vessels are canoes, even the things we refer to as "kayaks" are canoes (kayak being a closed canoe, as opposed to the ubiquitous summer-camp style which is an open canoe). Each boat has a different purpose, a different design and different construction. Personal preference plays the biggest role in choosing design, as well as the type of water it will be used on. Like many things, the canoe evolved as man's skill level and variety of materials available progressed.

A Dugout Canoe

Primitive canoes were dugout style, carved out of one large log. Most of the hollowing was done by implementing fire to burn and clean out the interior, and it is likely that primitive hatchets were used to hone the final shapes. The oldest known canoe, The Canoe of Pesse, is a dugout, and dates back to about 8000 BC. As previously stated, as man, his tools, and his technique evolved, so did the canoe. The next style to come about was the birch bark canoe. Made mostly by hand and with simple tools this canoe was actually a giant leap forward from the design/build perspective. The canoe had evolved from a one-piece dugout to a multi-faceted design with many individual components that was drastically lighter and drastically more complicated, considering its construction involved the use of natural resins and turps and forming a two-dimensional sheet of tree bark into a three-dimensional contoured shape.

Up until the mid 1800s, there was no real canoe industry. Like many other things at the time, canoes were traded for other goods and services. But as the population grew, and birch bark became more scarce, new build methods were needed. As the machine age fired up, so did the minds of recently emigrated boat builders. Canvas was readily available, and cheap. It's uniform weave and ability to shrink when wet made it the ideal candidate for a material that could replace the birch tree. First used solely as a patch device on birch canoes, canvas soon replaced the thin bark as the shipwright's material of choice for construction.
Wood and Canvas Canoe in Progress

Canvas Being Stretched Drum-Tight

Tacking the Canvas in Place

By 1878, a man named Evan H. Gerrish had perfected the canvas canoe and was making 18 of them per year in the first ever commercial canoe building enterprise. Based in Bangor, Maine, he was selling these canvas canoes for $25 apiece. Between 1888 and 1920, the Northeast exploded with canoe producers. Fueled by heightened demand, and aided by the ability to sell a much more reliable product, these new boat builders grew into the marketplace.

It wasn't until 1944 that the canoe would see another leap forward in design technology. Until that time, the Grumman Company had been making airplanes to fuel the war effort. But as the war came to an end, and demand for airplanes started to nosedive, Grumman set its sights on production efforts that would benefit everyday Americans. Having several airplanes that were made specifically to land in water, Grumman was poised with the materials, tooling, and design-oriented technology to mass-produce the first aluminum canoes. Aluminum as a build material was much lighter and stronger than the wood-based technology of the time. In spite of many drawbacks- aluminum canoes sink when capsized; are too noisy to facilitate hunting or wildlife watching; are cold in the winter and hot in the summer; have flat bottoms and slow lines; and are notorious for "sticking" to rocks- the aluminum canoe was, and still is, the most popular type of canoe, most likely because it's the easiest and cheapest to make.

Aluminum Canoe

Of course, the final end of canoe design comes to plastics, as seems most industrial products do in this day and age. Fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar are the three most popular high-tech choices. Each fits a certain need for the canoeist. These materials are lightweight and flexible-perfect for making thin-hulled racing canoes and ocean-going kayaks. The fact that they are a system of 'glass cloth and liquid epoxy resins means that they can be brought to contours and shapes that even the most skilled woodworker cannot achieve. With proper care, the materials can last indefinitely, but repair is significantly more costly and more involved. Most whitewater boats (canoes and kayaks made specifically for charging rapids) are made from and ABS plastic (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) which is heated and molded to the desired shape. This material is heavier than fiberglass, yet exponentially more rugged. It can withstand years of traveling downstream, bouncing off rocks and being dragged across sand. It is the ideal choice for a paddler in need of an affordable, virtually indestructible boat.

An ABS Whitewater Kayak

Even as technology and design evolves, the canoe's simple layout remains intact. It's difficult for a builder to make something out of fiberglass today that rivals the quiet elegance and clean lines of, say, an early Rushton Indial Girl model canoe. But I suppose, as they say, diff'rent stroke for diff'rent folks.

A Rushton Indian Girl Canoe, Traditional Wood and Canvas Build

A Lapstrake Canoe

Wood and Canvas Canoe, Sans Canvas

As summer lays in heavy and low here, my mind starts to wander to early mornings in the canoe, when the water is glass and even just the rim of the sun can burn the dew off the earth. Like The Voyageurs, I long to be out on the rivers and lakes around this area, paddling almost just for paddling's sake.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

One "Kit" Wonder

Although it was invented in 1938, Glass Reinforced Plastic, or GRP, didn't even begin to come into its own until the 1950s. You see, fiberglass had been invented as an insulation material; and despite it being very good at that task (and still used for it today), it was about to be taken to the next level.

Fiberglass was developed, as most things are, out of necessity during WWII in the UK as a replacement for the molded plywood used in aircraft radomes. But its lightweight-yet-incredibly-strong characteristics would not go unnoticed. As soon as the application became commercially acceptable for boatbuilding, fiberglass' use exploded.

Up until around the 60s surfboard craftsmen were making boards out of balsa wood, with its foam-like characteristics and fast growth in tropical climates, it was almost as if it was meant to be. Then came fiberglass. After realizing they could make "blank" surfboards out of polyurethane foam and give them a coat or two of fiberglass cloth and resin, boardmakers changed the face of surfing forever.

 Being lighter and more rigid than balsa, the new wrapped foam technique allowed for tighter turns and "snappier" tricks. Being stronger, it let surfers place larger bets on bigger, faster waves. And when the 70s came about, many board makers realized that they could get away with six or so feet of board, instead of the previous nine. That was the birth of the shortboard. That was when surfing really changed.

The tricks got more complex, the riders, more daring. And as production on the chemicals necessary to make a board became cheaper and more available, the sport exploded. But, further inland, fiberglass was finding another way to alter the Coastal California landscape.

Right around the same time fiberglass was hitting puberty, automobile production was like its younger brother, just a few steps behind. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, car makers were struggling with a way to keep the steel bodies of their autos from rusting and falling apart. Paint was not yet strong enough to survive total exposure to the elements for more than a few years, and rustproofing as we know it today was in its infancy.

Wrecker yards were full of perfectly good cars... with terrible bodies. Then, almost collectively, a bunch of DIY guys working in the shadows of home garages came up with a solution; if one couldn't afford a sports car, one could afford an old chassis and motor and a fiberglass body kit. Not technically the birth of the kit car, but definitely the first shots fired in the Kit Kar revolution.

Southern California. Late 60s, early 70s. This is where things get interesting. VW is on a roll, the Beetle is unstoppable. It's small, lightweight, has rear wheel drive. Phenomenal on gas. Won't overheat. Simple enough to rebuild in a home garage with a modest tool kit. All that, and there are literally thousands of them, like pigeons in New York. It's a dune racer's dream. Except that it's ugly. And a little bit useless for tooling around on the beaches.

So Bruce Meyers fixes the problem almost overnight by inventing the Meyers Manx. It's the first SoCal cruiser the world had ever seen. And it performed like a champ. Ads for his Manxter hit every car and sport magazine around and between 1964 and 1971 he made 6000 of 'em. And copies worldwide surpassed 125,000 just as fast. Meyers had created a frenzy. He made the quintessential SoCal vehicle for the time period. A body style so classically Californian that it's still in production today. And all the home technician had to do was pull the body off a Beetle, shorten the frame, and bolt the kit on.

Meyers also opened the floodgates for many other Kit Kars to be produced, all of which seem to elevate in complexity, including his own Manxter II. Porsche's were an easy rip off; Porsche designed the Beetle like an economy version of his speedsters. All someone had to do was swap the steel body for a sleek fiberglass one and they were James Dean for $50k less than the original.

But designers didn't stop there. The VW platform was most commonly used because it was so simple and abundant. But pretty much any frame-on-chassis car or truck could be used, and the possibilities were endless. Corvettes, Lamborghinis, Ferraris are all able to be duplicated using a wide variety of "donor vehicles". Some were incredible; some, downright goofy.


 The popularity of the Kit Kar died off with the DIY attitude of the American People. As her citizens became less and less likely to stay up late in garages converting old cars into functioning works of art, automakers started to push their idea of "customized" cars. Dealer- or factory-installed options replaced wrenches and America lost a little bit more of it's soul; but we call that the 80s and 90s and it's another story altogether.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How to Clear a Room

We are rarely aware of the external forces that shape our experience on this planet. Things that happened in the past, or take place far away change the landscape of our physical and/or sociological worlds to degrees that we often don't comprehend. Major breaks in technology are particularly influential; and, for better or worse, one could argue that weapons technology is the single most altering factor of the human experience.

 Hiram Maxim (someone who's history will not be done justice with one paragraph) was born on February 5th, 1840, and can effectively be credited with remapping the human landscape in a single lifetime. At 14 he began his life's path as an apprentice coach builder, and a few years later took up inventing, which seems like it was actually a viable career in the late 1800s.

Maxim, as I've said before, remapped humanity, or at least remapped the way humans interact with their world. He is credited with many mundane inventions such as the Curling Iron and the Asthma Inhaler, and a few more prominent ones like the Mouse Trap and the Carnival Amusement Ride. He attempted to lay claim to the Lightbulb, but got into a lengthy legal battle with Edison over it and lost interest. He toyed with powered flight and built a Steam Engine that actually flew a plane... a few feet.

But the one thing Maxim made that really threw a wrench in the gears of the world was the Machine Gun. And he didn't stop there.

To really see where this is going, we need to take a step back and learn how exactly a machine gun works, and to do that, we need to look at exactly what a machine gun is.

A machine gun is basically just a regular gun that has been modified to spew bullets at an alarming rate (as if one bullet isn't alarming enough). But what modification makes a gun shoot faster? Simply put, in a normal gun you have a barrel, trigger and firing pin. A series of springs and levers move the components so that when the user pulls the trigger the gun fires and a new round is lined up in front of the firing pin. Early machine guns like the Gatling Gun used a hand crank and multiple barrels and firing pins to do this single task in rapid succession. But these guns were not true Machine Guns. In a true Machine Gun, the user pulls the trigger once, and the gun continues to fire until the trigger is released, or there's no more ammo left.

And this is where Maxim's genius shines through. Every time a gun fires, the bullet goes forward and the gun goes backwards. In fact, as a child, Maxim was literally knocked over by the recoil of a rifle he was firing. That experience lay dormant for years, until inspiration struck. Maxim developed a way to use the action/reaction of a gun firing to "reload" the gun. In Maxim's gun, when the bullet fires and the weapon kicks back, it ejects the spent round, loads a new one, and reactivates the bolt, all in a single motion. What an elegant use of otherwise wasted energy.

There are 3 main ways of using the energy of the bullet to re-cock the gun in use today. Maxim gets credit for developing ALL of them. It's lengthy, technical stuff that's better delved into on a personal whim on how it all works but suffice it to say that very little change has been made to what this man came up with in 1885.

Regular machine guns are full sized rifles like the M-16 battle rifle or the AK-47 assault rifle. Those guns shoot very large rounds at a fairly rapid rate. The downside to pissing huge bullets like that is that the gun is almost uncontrollable at full fire. And a big, uncontrollable gun is terrible for close-quarters combat. Most manufacturers limit the rate of fire to 3 round bursts, which saves ammo and allows the user to maintain a margin of accuracy. But if you want to clear a room, you need something smaller, faster and more manageable.

Cue the Sub Machine Gun. This little guy doesn't fire a rifle round but rather spits a smaller pistol round like the 9mm. The smaller bullet has less stopping power, but also less kick. The gun remains more manageable under full fire and since everything is more compact, can actually fire a lot faster. Plus, a gun smaller than a rifle but bigger than a pistol is great for interior combat and things like drug raids.

Add to this the 100 or so years engineers have had to tweak these things and the gazillions of dollars governments and drug lords have put into that development and you come out with some crazy shit. Go watch The Fifth Element and you'll get a good idea of where Sub Machine Guns will be in the next 10 years.