Monday, June 22, 2009

Cornell Hydraulics Lab

Cornell Hydraulics Lab

The Cornell University campus in Ithaca, NY sits atop a hill overlooking downtown Ithaca and the southern tip of Lake Cayuga, one of the finger lakes of New York state.  The campus is bounded on the north and the south by deep gorges.  (The basis for the bad pun on all those "Ithaca is gorges" T-shirts).  Well, "bounded" is too strong a word as bits of campus have long since spilled across Cascadilla Gorge into College Town to the south of the main campus; and to the north of Fall Creek gorge, North Campus is a nearly city-sized collection of dormitories.

Fall Creek gorge had the interesting feature of the long-abandoned Hydraulics Lab built into the wall of the gorge just below Beebee Lake.   In 2005, some relatives of a Cornell student took a trip to Ithaca and they posted a very nice web page documenting the trip with pictures and words.  Among their pictures was this photo of the Hydraulics Lab, which they captioned "Fall Creek and the Hydraulics Lab from the Thurston Avenue Bridge."

     Fall Creek and the Hydraulics Lab from the Thurston Avenue Bridge.


In good weather, the Cornell campus is a fabulously beautiful place. If you are unfamiliar with it, click on the "campus" link up above here. Click on the virtual tour check box just below the map and click on the various panorama points on the map to see various 360-degree pictures of the place. "Stroll around the grounds a bit, until you feel at home".

Memorial Day weekend, 2009, I went back to visit the Cornell campus.   Through fortuitous bad planning, that turned out to be the weekend for Cornell's graduation ceremony.  (No wonder I'd had such a hard time reserving a hotel room - we ended up in a hotel in Owego, about 30 miles to the south of Ithaca).  I picked up a graduation edition of the Cornell Daily Sun in the lobby of Willard Straight Hall and didn't get around to reading it until I'd gotten home.  I was surprised to learn from the paper that one cold night in February, 2009, the hydraulics lab collapsed into the gorge.   That motivated me to look for more info on the web and I found a March 2009 Cornell Daily Sun article (link now dead, sniff, sniff) about the proposed clean-up of the site.   That article included this wintery "after" photo:

Vanishing act: The remains of the old Hydraulics Lab,
 which collapsed into Fall Creek Gorge

Alas, in 9/2013 that archived article and the photo were tidied up from the Sun's web site. Happily, I found another copy of the photo on George Lowery's Cornell blog.


If you look at the "after" photo, you can see the large vertical water pipe that must have been the central feature of the lab at the time it was in use

The Hydraulics Lab had stood for 111 years.  The estimate is that to remove the remnants will cost a million dollars.  That leaves me wondering what did it cost to build the lab in the first place?  The rock of the building matched the walls of the gorge very nicely.  Was the rock for the building carved from the site or is most rock in the area roughly the same color as the gorge walls?

Can you imagine the expense and time it would take to try to build such a lab on that site today?  I'm sure it would have to be fully handicapped accessible, and would require bathrooms and a sewage system connection.   Most likely it would never get the necessary permits at all, but if it did, and if in another 111 years the modern replacement was to again collapse into the gorge, my hunch is that it would leave a heck of a lot more debris than the above picture shows.

Thinking about the old lab got me to wondering.   What motivated the engineering school to build such a lab on so challenging a site as this one more than a century ago?  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that engineering has sure changed a whole bunch since the late 1800's.  I entered Cornell's Engineering school in 1970.  As a freshman, I was in a select group that, as an experiment, studied PL/C computer programming instead of mechanical drawing.   Within a year or 2, the T-squares, drawing boards, triangles and mechanical drawing classes were gone entirely.   PL/C was a Cornell variant of the PL/I programming language.  PL/I's lifespan didn't turn out to be as long as that of T-squares.  Computing in 1970 was mostly batch processing.   We'd submit our programs on 80-column punched cards and get our error messages back on fanfold printouts that would come off a line-printer.  The printers would only print in upper case, unless you made special arrangements for a print-chain to be mounted that included lower case letters.   The Internet and the Web, even PC's were still many years off into the future.   Cornell's computer was an IBM 360/65 mainframe located off-campus out near the Ithaca airport that did both academic and administrative processing.  The computing facilities in Upson, Clark and Warren Hall's were just remote job entry stations, little (Well, the size of a kitchen counter. That's "little" compared to a room-sized 360/65) 360/20 computers to drive the card reader(s) and line printers and a 56Kbps (?) communication line to the mainframe at Langmuir Labs.  The giant mainframe had a total of 512KB of memory.   Today when I type that I have to force my fingers to type that K because my reflex is to think 512MB of memory would be unthinkably small.  (Just this weekend a friend asked me to look at his notebook PC to see why it was so slow.  I pointed out that he was running Windows Vista with only 1GB [that's 1024MB which is 2048x as much memory as Cornell's mainframe had back in the day] of memory).

So 35 years since I graduated from Engineering school, I'm wondering how did I ever write papers and stuff without Google.  I had a mechanical portable typewriter and if it hadn't been for corrasable paper, I'd probably have been stuck in high school until word processors became available.   They became available on campus to undergrads about 1973.   I remember Tim Metcalf, my very forward thinking roommate, used the by-then available online computer terminals to produce his resume while job hunting our senior year.   My portable typewriter and ream of corrasable paper apparently slipped through a window of opportunity as checking today for the correct spelling of corrasable, I find that that kind of paper apparently has been banned for final copies of thesis submissions as it doesn't have proper archival properties for long term shelf life of the typed documents.  If you wanted to buy such paper today, good luck to you.   Staples doesn't have it.   But then I was mildly surprised to find Staples still has a selection of a dozen varieties of typewriter to chose among.

But think back to the late 1800's when campus buildings were not yet wired for electricity.   Were there gas lights in the dorm rooms?  My memory of hydraulics as a topic in 1970's physics classes were maybe an experiment with a couple of columns of water, different diameter columns, connected to each other at the bottom with some tubing.  At first I was asking myself what the academic value was of a huge steel pipe encasing a column of water many feet tall in that ancient hydraulics lab to have justified the trouble and expense of building that hydraulics lab.  Then it hit me, hydraulics in the late 1800's surely wasn't something you'd only encounter in the service station's "lift" for raising your car for an oil change.   Hydraulics must have encompassed the study of water power for driving machinery.  Now I'd feel more confident in this speculation if I could find something about a large steam engine elsewhere in the engineering school to study another major source of mechanical power in the late nineteenth century.  I Googled for

cornell steam engine

and didn't find anything about a steam engine lab, but I did find an online copy of an 1878 book about steam engines by Cornell Professor Robert Thurston, and mention of a patented improvement to the steam engine that had been invented by Cornell Professor J. E. Sweet that apparently was the foundation of Brampton, Ontario having a manufacturing industry.

Hmm...  Given my tendency to have my attention wander off to tangentially related topics, maybe I'm lucky that Google wasn't around to distract me when I was in college.

In case you were wondering, the collapsed Hydraulics Lab was quite separate from the Cornell hydroelectric plant.   From digging around on the web, the Fall Creek hydroelectric plant was built in 1904.  By the time I was at Cornell in the 1970's, the plant had fallen into dis-use, but during one of the various energy crises (1981), the hydro electric plant was restored and apparently remains in service today.
Cornell Hydroelectric plant

If you do visit Cornell, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.  Puzzling that there hasn't been significant seismic activity in Ithaca, yet I found the hills are significantly steeper now than they were in 1970.  It's still a stunningly beautiful place to visit in the Spring or anytime that isn't winter.

Drew
Revised 08/03/2009 to fix a typographic error.
Revised 06/03/2010 to replace the link to the Cornell steam engine article.    The old link has gone 404 on me.
Revised 5/4/2013 to fix the URL's of the images. Old URL's as posted no longer worked, but thankfully the pictures are still online
Revised 9/21/2013 to replace the photo of the collapsed lab as the Cornell Sun copy has vanished from the web.
Revised 9/22/2013 to replace the link to the campus map, which went 404 on me too. New map has virtual tour feature! Revised mention of IBM 360's to provide a link to a web page to show what they look like lest I mislead in describing the "360/20" as "little".
Hey! Didn't you get the memo about Web 2.0? The idea is that you aren't stuck just reading the site. If you run into a missing photo or broken link or typo or even a bad idea, you can leave a comment to let me know about it, so I can fix things up.
Revised 9/22/2013 to replace the links about the hydroelectric plant with links that are currently in good working order.
Revised 9/22/2013 to replace the link about corrasable paper not being acceptable for theses final submission to put in a link that is currently in working order.
Revised link to staples web site and noted that they now have even more typewriters listed than they used to.