Transcontinental Railroad

I just finished reading Nothing Like It in the World, a book about the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860’s. There were two companies involved, the Central Pacific coming from California (CP) and the Union Pacific coming from Omaha (UP) (there was no railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Omaha until after the railroad was finished).

It took a long time to get through the book even though it isn’t that long. It just isn’t that exciting, even for an engineer. But there are a few highlights. Both companies were trying to go as fast as possible and quality didn’t matter to them that much. One reason was it was very expensive to move materials, because there wasn’t a railroad yet. The company in California got its rails, spikes, and railroad cars from the eastern part of the US via ship going around South America (there wasn’t a Panama Canal until much later, though there was a very short transcontinental railroad across the isthmus, built in 1855). So most of the bridges were built out of wood, knowing they would need to be replaced with something more substantial later.

The UP coming from Omaha had a much easier job, able to build across the Great Plains. They were able to achieve a record by laying 2 miles of tracks in one day. A rail car would be pushed to the front of the line with rails and ties, which would be unloaded and laid out in front of the car. But soon the car was empty and in the way of the next car behind it. Since there was only one track they just pushed the car over on its side so the next car could be pushed forward. Once the train was past, they would push the overturned cars back over and onto the track and bring them back empty. Eventually they were able to get 4 miles in one day.

Meanwhile the CP was immediately stuck with getting over mountains in California and had a hard time getting labor, partly because gold had just been discovered in California and everybody left to go try to get rich. They wound up hiring Chinese and then bringing more and more Chinese over once they realized how hard the Chinese would work without grumbling, getting drunk, or killing each other (like the Irish).

Once the CP got into Nevada and Utah, they hit some flat land and could really make a lot of progress. Soon they broke the UP’s record by laying six miles of track in a day. Not much later, the UP got the record back with 8 miles in a day. That record stood for a long time but the UP was soon bogged down working their way up Promontory Summit, just a few miles from where the two lines would meet. Meanwhile the CP was still on flat land as they worked their way East. Knowing the the UP only had 6 miles to go, the CP, with 16 miles to go, made their move and was able to knock out 10 miles in one day, laying 6 miles of track before lunch break. There were 8 big Irish guys that would put the rails in place. They were only supposed to work until lunch and then be relieved, but they wanted to keep going, so those 8 guys carried all 10 miles of rail that day. Really 20 miles of rail since there are two rails on the track. The UP, with only 8 miles to go, had no chance of breaking the record. In fact, the book says the record has never been broken. A few days after that, 101 years before Grant’s birthday, they drove the golden spike. They took the golden spike back out immediately because it really was made of gold and they knew some of the now unemployed workers would take it. In fact, people carved off pieces of the last railroad tie to keep as a souvenir. So many people did it that six railroad ties wound up missing.

Emergency Radio

For some reason I was thinking about weather emergencies, so I started looking for a battery-powered weather radio. In Thailand I had a shortwave radio that could get broadcasts of Voice of America and BBC which was pretty neat and I thought I might want a shortwave radio. But those get kind of expensive and I just don’t see me using it that much since everything on TV and radio in the US is already in English. I found a couple of radios out there that use hand cranks that you can use for a minute or so to charge the internal battery and then get 15-30 minutes of radio play. What I would really prefer is a radio that uses regular AA (or AAA) NiMH batteries that could be charged by the crank. That’s because the little NiMH battery pack can wear out or stop holding a charge, which is pretty likely since it’s being drained down pretty far, and then you would have to get a new one for who knows how much.

For weather, there are 7 different weather station frequencies used by NOAA and the National Weather Service. The frequencies are in VHF instead of AM or FM where it would have been really easy. There used to be real people broadcasting the weather, but now it is all automated robot voices, which isn’t too bad because it seems to be more current.

One feature they have now is radios that come on by themselves when there is a severe weather alert. They also have Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME). This lets you enter the county where you live so that the radio comes on only for weather emergencies that affect your county. You can also program the type of alert you want to hear about, for instance severe thunderstorms, tornado watches, tornado warning, etc. Live on high ground? Then you can cancel tsunami alerts.

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Quantum Tunneling Composite

Last year one of the guys on the BLF discussion board bought some stuff called Quantum Tunnelling Composite that he wanted to play around with. He had to buy a bunch of it and I had never even heard of it before and he didn’t have much luck with it. It is some kind of rubber that conducts electricity when compressed, but it doesn’t conduct when it isn’t compressed. In between it can give you varying results. So his idea (which he had seen somewhere else) was to put it in a flashlight and then adjust pressure on the battery and QTC to get variable output by tightening or loosening the head of the flashlight. Because he had a lot of the stuff he ended up giving some of it away to others who wanted to play around with it too and they came up with ways of using it. It works best with a simple on/off flashlight. You turn it to On and then adjust the pressure. Those people had some success and made videos of it in action. Anyway, now the guy is ordering some more and offered to mail it to people at cost, so I asked for a few pieces. I like it just for the cool name, which is explained on Wikipedia as having to do with electrons tunneling through the rubber stuff to get to the metal pieces that are in there. As it is compressed, the metal pieces get closer together and apparently there are some quantum effects going on.

Whatever. If I can make it work in a flashlight that will be cool. I have a kind of half-broken flashlight that uses AA batteries in a really tight fit and it might be perfect for that.

Here’s a post where a guy videotapes a highly modified Mini Maglite that he has fitted with QTC.