Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My nerd crush on Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon

Almost nobody has heard of Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon but almost everybody has benefited from their engineering breakthrough that came in the late 1950s. All they did with their company Arrow Dynamics, was invent the steel tubular roller coaster track on which most modern designs are based. They revolutionized their industry and it all came about in an attempt to solve a problem that no roller coaster manufacturer had been asked to solve before.

You could argue that roller coasters have been around as long as trains. The earliest rides were forms of transportation that would use steam engines to go up a hill and then let gravity do its thing to get back down. People enjoyed them enough that companies sprouted to build stand alone rides that had their own lift hills. By the early 20th century, roller coasters were hugely popular with more rides than there even are today.

Before the 1950s, designs borrowed technology from the locomotive industry from which they spawned. Wooden or metal support systems gave elevations and turns to flat steel railings that the metal wheels of the car rolled upon. Because of the flatness of the rails, the angles they could be bent at were a limiting factor in ride design. For example, only a certain tightness was achievable in a curve because the flat metal rails could only be bent so far without becoming weak and unsafe.

Then, Walt Disney went to Switzerland.

While there, he was struck by the beauty of the Matterhorn peak in the Alps and wanted a replica of it for his new theme park in Anaheim, California. Not just a piece of eye candy, Walt's Matterhorn would have a roller coaster in it themed to feel like a bobsled ride that would take guests inside and out his miniature mountain. The finished attraction would be a 1/100th scale reproduction of the real thing, a size that was required in order to fit the perspectives of its surroundings within Disneyland.

Size restraints presented Morgan and Bacon with a difficult engineering challenge. The ride had a relatively small show building that was to be shaped to look like a real mountain and it had to house two different tracks to give its riders the sense they were racing with another sled. The confines of the building proved to be the limiting factor as it would require much tighter turns than were possible using standard roller coaster rails.

Thus the steel tubular roller coaster track was born to solve the problem.

As Morgan put it in Robert R. Reynolds' great book called Roller Coasters, Flumes and Flying Saucers:

"Steel tube rail lends itself much more to accurate bending because the forces are always the same no matter what axis you bend on. You can't do that with a flat bar, or angle iron, or anything like that."

Due to its cylindrical nature, a tube can be bent at a much tighter angle than a flat rail can. Combined with innovations in polyurethane wheels, this design allowed Arrow Dynamics much more freedom with the track layout while still meeting Disney's vast set of requirements. When it opened in 1959, Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds became the worlds first tubular steel roller coaster. It underwent a major renovation in 1978 that validated the flexibility of its design and continues to operate today, almost 50 years after its initial construction.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 7:49 AM   0 comments links to this post

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