Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hermann von Helmholtz talks machines

Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz was a pioneer in developing the concept of conservation of energy. He was also a bit like today's Sagans and Bronowskis bringing natural science to TV audiences -- a pioneer in giving popular lectures on scientific topics in Germany. Here is a passage from his 1862-63 series at Carlsruhe.

The idea of work for machines, or natural processes, is taken from comparison with the working power of man; and we can therefore best illustrate from human labour the most important features of the question with which we are concerned. In speaking of the work of machines and of natural forces we must, of course, in this comparison eliminate anything in which activity of intelligence comes into play. The latter is also capable of the hard and intense work of thinking, which tries a man just as muscular exertion does. But whatever of the actions of intelligence is met with in the work of machines, of course is due to the mind of the constructor and cannot be assigned to the instrument at work.

About these ads

Now, the external work of man is of the most varied kind as regards the force or ease, the form and rapidity, of the motions used on it, and the kind of work produced. But both the arm of the blacksmith who delivers his powerful blows with the heavy hammer, and that of the violinist who produces the most delicate variations in sound, and the hand of the lace-maker who works with threads so fine that they are on the verge of the invisible, all these acquire the force which moves them, in the same manner and by the same organs, namely the muscles of the arms. . . .

Just so it is with machines: they are used for the most diversified arrangements. We produce by their agency an infinite variety of movements, with the most various degrees of force and rapidity, from powerful steam-hammers and rolling-mills, where gigantic masses of iron are cut and shaped like butter, to spinning and weaving-frames, the work of which rivals that of the spider. Modern mechanism has the richest choice of means of transferring the motion of one set of rolling wheels to another with great er or less velocity; of changing the rotating motion of wheels into the up-and-down motion of the piston-rod, of the shuttle, of falling hammers and stamps; or, conversely, of changing the latter into the former; or it can, on the other hand, change movements of uniform into those of varying velocity, and so forth. Hence this extraordinarily rich utility of machines for so extremely varied branches of industry. But one thing is common to all these differences; they all need a moving force, which

sets and keeps them in motion, just as the works of the human hand all need the moving force of the muscles.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.