Engineering lesson from the past; from Timber to Touch Screens
I've been reading about Shays again, and it got me thinking..
Many folks know, some don't yet, and it bears repeating, that there were three primary types of geared steam locomotive in North America: Shay, Heisler, and Climax (in order of popularity). The Heisler had arguably the best design from an theoretical point of view. The drive shaft was centered for even balance and torque, a single gear per truck meant that the gears could be straight bevel gears, and the 90 degree V engine was well placed and balanced. The Shay, on the other hand, had everything wrong. The engine was on one side, the boiler was offset to the other, the drive shaft was on the side, and the gears were out where they could be hit or fouled by anything beside the track. There's not a lot I can say about the Climax, as it seems to have been an attempt to do something different rather than better. As a fan of all things steam and unusual, I love all three.
All three were well built, functional engines, and many hundreds (thousands?) were in use all over the world for the better part of a century. Why, however, was the Shay more popular, even though the Heisler was theoretically better? I contend that the Shay had two major advantages, both related to the entire drive line being on one side. One, it kept the drive shaft out of the firebox (good for both the drive shaft and the firebox). Two, everything was on the outside and easily serviced, repaired or replaced in the field. You can (and I have) lubricate all the moving parts on a Shay just by walking around the outside.
None of this is new, of course, so why am I rambling on about it? Because I think we can learn something here. Sometimes the "best" (Heisler) or "different" (Climax) designs are not as useful as they would seem. If they do not best fit the real world needs of the folks buying them, they're not going to be as successful as a theoretically inferior design which does meet those needs. It doesn't matter if we're talking about logging locomotives, radio control, touch screen throttles, cars, or guns and butter, "best" is not always better.
This is not meant as a condemnation of any person, design or theory, past, present or future. It is merely offered as a lesson from history that I think is useful and instructive today.
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