Today, lessons in modern design from the sports
pages. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I have many doubts about
big-time athletics. Still, the underdog Houston
Rockets got my attention with their 1995 NBA
championship. I was powerfully drawn to the beauty
of experimentation and teamwork -- and of a
champion emerging from shadowland.
The latest issue of Mechanical
Engineering magazine drives home the point.
The Silicon Graphics Computer Company has taken out
an eight-page advertisement. It's all about New
Zealand's recent victory in the America's Cup
races. New Zealand won 39 heats in that competition
and lost only one -- that by a mere 15 seconds.
The U.S. had dominated the race for years. A
decisive win by bucolic New Zealand was as
unthinkable as David slaying Goliath. The gleeful
Silicon Graphics ad tells about it. New Zealand
went to computer fluid flow analysts at
Carnegie-Mellon Institute with a large grant. The
experts spent five years setting up means for
testing boats, not in the water, but in computer
Computer modeling of fluid flow is elusive and
difficult. The Carnegie engineers used the latest
research, but they still could only come close to
So they set up a team right at dockside in San
Diego -- twenty feet from a workshop. Using Silicon
Graphics computers, they created a ritual of rapid
trial and error.
Analysts would do maybe 200 designs a night --
design a boat, sail it in their electronic ocean,
make another change, sail it again. Next day, the
shop people would change one of two real boats and
run it against the previous boat in the real ocean.
What once took years now got done in hours. The
team tested 10,000 such designs, gaining a few
seconds now and then on the course.
A 1990 article on yacht design in the Annual
Review of Fluid Mechanics tells about
another humiliation for the U.S. team -- the 1983
victory of the Australian entry. Same story: the
Australians leap-frogged us with a radical new hull
design based on sophisticated computer-aided design
The same ingredients won the NBA championship for
Houston when no one thought it possible. The
Rockets replaced brute individualism with
intelligence, with trial and error, and with the
most cooperative spirit of any team in the league.
So we learn from the sports pages -- not just in
our newspapers, but in our technical journals as
well. That same issue of Mechanical
Engineering has another article on the
computer design of Formula One race cars. Industry
and the sports arena have much to gain from one
another -- lessons in cooperation, in rapid trial
and error, and in the terrible beauty of being the
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dietz, D., Modeling Fluid-Structure Interactions:
Virtual Tests Help Kiwis Win America's Cup.
Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 117, No. 7,
July 1995, p. 18. (See also the Silicon Graphics
Computer Systems advertisement on pp. 49-56.)
Larsson, L., Scientific Methods in Yacht Design.
Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, Vol.
22, 1990, pp. 349-385.
I am grateful to computational fluid dynamicist
Ralph Metcalfe, UH Mechanical Engineering
Department, for his counsel.
As for the Houston Rockets, they, of course, won
the NBA championship in 1994 as well as in 1995.
But in 1994 they looked like contenders all year
long. In 1995 they barely made it into the playoffs
after a year of shifting personel and changes in
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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