Leonardo DaVinci famously sketched helicopters long before the technology needed to make them fly was developed. The American Motorcycle Association museum in Ohio displays a re-creation of an attempt at a steam powered two-wheeler that reminded me of The Flintstones; it even had a wooden frame and wheels. People can imagine amazing things that evade the best attempts to produce them, often because the materials and machinery needed were not available.
Whenever someone announces a major “first” in the engineering world, I brace myself for the eventual debunking of its originality. The “first” motorcycle, the “first” electric car, the “first” wind turbine, is almost impossible to identify with certainty. Aside from the creativity of the individual human mind being influenced by our common ancestry, inquisitive people have moved around the world much more than popular history would admit. This technical cross-talk between cultures is getting easier every day. Where ideas were once transferred in physical form over a year or more, they now can circle the globe in a computer file in a few seconds.
Every genius is limited by their tool kit. I am fascinated by early racing cars and the way ideas were disseminated between continents. The famous Offenhauser engine has its roots in a Peugeot that blew up at the onset of the Great War. Harry Miller’s Los Angeles shop was talked into fixing it when OEM parts flow was stopped for the duration. Miller’s draftsman, Leo Goosen, continued using the same basic concepts into the 1980s. Those concepts returned to Europe after WWI when the famous Bugatti works bartered new cars for several Miller-powered race cars that they studied before designing their first dual-overhead cam, four-valve engine.
I very much enjoyed the gearbox repair business for similar reasons. The insight gained from literally putting your hands on the broken bits of someone else’s design really educates you on what works and what doesn’t work. Very seldom is there only one way to do something and designs are influenced by the technology available. Things that once failed might work well with modern materials, heat treatment, and tolerances.
What old ideas could use a second chance?