July 26, 2023
One of the perks of being a “public” gear person is the opportunity to interact with interesting people in and around our industry. Gear Technology magazine is responsible for many of these situations through its Ask the Expert column and the live expert panel discussions at Gear Expo. Others occur via internet correspondence; between this blog, my website, and reprints of my technical papers in non-U.S. publications, my name comes up when people search for gear consultants. This is a good thing in terms of generating projects, but frequently I find myself in the awkward position of giving bad news to excited inventors of new gear devices or tooth systems. I am a big fan of tinkerers and amateur inventors; very few of the big ideas we enjoy today really came from product developers — instead think tanks and research labs. The think tank, after all, is really a modern development, dating to the late nineteenth century or maybe even the early twentieth. Alexander Graham Bell’s wife is credited by some with starting the first one, a group determined to apply science to manned flight using some of her Bell Telephone profits. Thomas Edison may have preempted her with his labs, despite wanting the public to think he was a lone experimenter. Until that time period, great inventions came from great men. Often the same invention came about almost simultaneously — from multiple inventors — leading to years of legal battles over who was first. There is an argument that we have outgrown the patent system our founding fathers championed, but that is an argument for another day. I do not enjoy bursting inventor’s bubbles. It sounds cruel to tell people that some of the greatest minds in history have devoted significant periods of their lives to gears. Dozens of shapes of teeth have been proposed, built, tested, and sometimes produced in significant quantities. As long as the laws of conjugate action are obeyed, they all “work” and transmit motion from one part to the other. The same can be said for geared devices; there are many ways to achieve a specific motion, speed change, or torque distribution. All the tooth forms and all the devices have to comply with physical laws of motion, inertia, and friction. Some of the claims I hear have not been vetted scientifically or checked against the historical record. In this wonderfully interconnected, instantly searchable world, it would save many hurt feelings if inventors could just find the right search terms. Somewhere in my files I have a copy of an attempt to cross reference common gear terms into multiple languages. If the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their proper names, we need to work on that chart some more.