Mechanic Prince Of Tides

Lord Kelvin’s name comes up anytime you start looking at the history of science and technology. In addition to working on transatlantic cables and thermodynamics, he also built an early computing device to predict tides. Kelvin, whose real name was William Thomson, became interested in tides in a roundabout way, as explained in a recent IEEE Spectrum article.

He’d made plenty of money on his patents related to the telegraph cable, but his wife died, so he decided to buy a yacht, the Lalla Rookh. He used it as a summer home. If you live on a boat, the tides are an important part of your day.

Today, you could just ask your favorite search engine or AI about the tides, but in 1870, that wasn’t possible. Also, in a day when sea power made or broke empires, tide charts were often top secret. Not that the tides were a total mystery. Newton explained what was happening back in 1687. Laplace realized they were tied to oscillations almost a century later. Thomson made a machine that could do the math Laplace envisioned.

We know today that the tides depend on hundreds of different motions, but many of them have relatively insignificant contributions, and we only track 37 of them, according to the post. Kelvin’s machine — an intricate mesh of gears and cranks — tracked only 10 components.

In operation, the user turned a crank, and a pen traced a curve on a roll of paper. A small mark showed the hour with a special mark for noon. You could process a year’s worth of tides in about 4 hours. While Kelvin received credit for the machine’s creation, he acknowledged the help of many others in his paper, from craftsmen to his brother.

We actually did a deep dive into tides, including Kelvin’s machine, a few years ago. He shows up a number of times in our posts.

3D Printing May Disprove Lord Kelvin

If you think 3D printing is only good for benchies, key chains, and printer parts, you might enjoy the paper by two physicists from Wesleyan University and the University of Gothenburg. Lord Kelvin — also known as William Thomson — hypothesized a shape known as an isotropic helicoid. As its name implies, the shape would look the same from any angle. Kelvin predicted that such a shape would spin as it sank in a liquid. Turns out, 3D printing proves it wrong. (The actual paywalled paper is available.)

It might seem strange that scientists are only now getting around to disproving a 150-year old hypothesis. However, the paper’s authors think Kelvin may have built the structures — he provided precise instructions — and simply dropped it when it proved incorrect.

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Lord Kelvin’s Contraption Turns Drips Into Sparks

It’s easy to think that devices which generate thousands of volts of electricity must involve relatively modern technology, but the fact is, machines capable of firing sparks through open air predate Edison’s light bulb. Which means that recreating them with modern tools, construction techniques, and part availability, is probably a lot easier than most people realize. The fascinating machine [Jay Bowles] put together for his latest Plasma Channel video is a perfect example, as it’s capable of developing 6,000 volts without any electronic components.

Now as clever as [Jay] might be, he can’t take credit for the idea on this one. That honor goes to Lord Kelvin, who came up with this particular style of electrostatic generator back in 1867. Alternately called “Kelvin water dropper” or “Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm”, the machine is able to produce a high voltage charge from falling water without using any moving parts.

Diverging streams means a charge is building up.

Our very own [Steven Dufresne] wrote an in-depth look at how these devices operate, but the short version is that a negative and positive charge is built up in two sets of metallic inductor rings and buckets, with the stream of water itself acting as a sort of wire to carry the charge up to the overhead water reservoir. As [Jay] demonstrates the video, you’ll know things are working when the streams of water become attracted to the inductors they are passing through.

Rather than connecting a separate spark gap up to the water “receivers” on the bottom of his water dropper, [Jay] found the handles on the metal mugs he’s using worked just as well. By moving the mugs closer and farther away he can adjust the gap, and a second adjustment lets him move the vertical position of the inductors. It sounds like it takes some fiddling to get everything in position, but once it’s working, the whole thing is very impressive.

Of course if you’re looking to get serious with high voltage experiments, you’ll want to upgrade to some less whimsical equipment pretty quickly. Luckily, [Jay] has shown that putting together a reliable HV supply doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated.

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Getting Sparks From Water With Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm

In the comments to our recent article about Wimshurst machines, we saw that some hackers had never heard of them, reminding us that we all have different backgrounds and much to share. Well here’s one I’m guessing even fewer will have heard of. It’s never even shown up in a single Hackaday article, something that was also pointed out in a comment to that Wimshurst article. It is the Lord Kelvin’s Water Dropper aka Lord Kelvin’s Thunderstorm, invented in the 1860s by William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, the same fellow for whom the Kelvin temperature scale is named.  It’s a device that produces a high voltage and sparks from falling drops of water.

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How Analog Tide Predictors Changed Human History

If you’re completely landlocked like I am, you may dream of ocean waves lapping at the shore, but you probably don’t think much about the tides. The movement of the ocean tides is actually quite important to many groups of people, from fishermen to surfers to coastal zone engineers. The behavior of the tides over time is helpful data for those who study world climate change.

Early tide prediction was based on observed changes in relation to the phases of the Moon. These days, tide-predicting is done quickly and with digital computers. But the first purpose-built machines were slow yet accurate analog computation devices that, as they were developed, could account for increasing numbers of tidal constituents, which represent the changes in the positions of tide-generating astronomical bodies. One of these calculating marvels even saved the Allies’ invasion of Normandy—or D-Day— in World War II.

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