[No. 22] What can we do when we can’t go to work?

Many engineers are at home because of the pandemic, unable to go to work.Although many can work “from home” by internet links, it’s not the same.We are separated from our laboratories, our factories, our colleagues, and even from the coffee machine.Business in general is very slow, and we are uncertain about the future.When will it end, and how will things change?

One of the stories about Park’s transform is that it was developed and applied by a group of development engineers during the Great Depression.They were still employed even though business conditions were poor, and credit is often given to General Electric (and many other companies all over the world) for continuing their development efforts through difficult times.They had a vision of the future.It was the era of electrification on a huge scale — the building of power stations, transmission networks, and all kinds of electrical machinery and appliances.The world was depressed, but it wasn’t standing still.And Park’s transform is only one example of a result that came out of adversity.History has many similar examples.

It’s not difficult to see parallels today.The world economy is depressed, the future looks uncertain, and many talented people are unable to work normally.What can we do as individuals in this situation?

No-one knows the complete answer to this question.Most people are formulating their reactions day by day, and we will no doubt see the results in due course.But for myself, I believe it is helpful to spend time in study.

I mean real study: the patient reading of books, the practice of exercises, — and as part of the process, the writing of what we have learned.We are unlikely to repeat the feat of R.H. Park and become famous for what became one of the basic theorems in electric machine theory.But we can improve our skills and grasp of the subject greatly by study, including the study of topics not directly related to our normal work.

In my case I have a few books which I have owned for many years, some of them which I bought as a student in the 1960s.I have been meaning to read them for such a long time, and recently I have been doing that.One of them is C.G. Veinott’s Fractional Horsepower Electric Motors, [1938].This book contains very little mathematics, but in 430 pages he describes the world of single-phase AC motors in the most exquisite English, with clear diagrams and great consistency.I read this book (mainly at bedtime) from cover to cover over a few weeks.I tried to write down some of the main principles with the book shut.I found it surprisingly difficult to express these things as clearly as Veinott did in the original.What this taught me is that study is hard work.Even though the reading may be pleasant, it’s a tough proposition to put one’s learning to the test.It’s an examination!

Not everyone will want to read about single-phase AC motors, for sure.But there is a wealth of books available, on almost every topic.Many of the early works from the 1890s and later are available in reprints at reasonable prices from specialist publishers who make it their business to preserve the jewels from the past.

The great titles are not all suitable for this kind of study.Some of them are written for experts, so they are not didactic.The developers of theories were not necessarily the best teachers, so their works are often difficult to absorb.This has been said of James Clerk Maxwell, whose equations were put into a more workable form by others (especially Oliver Heaviside).On a subject like Park’s transform and the theory of synchronous machines, there are several classic works, some of which cover transformation theory quite thoroughly, but I do not know of one that is truly a teaching book.So in subjects like that, one may have to study several different works before things become clear.

Not only books.The original papers of the great engineers are often accessible through IEEE and other institutional online libraries.These services are not free, but private subscriptions are not too expensive and some companies maintain institutional subscriptions.For some topics I am convinced that the best source material is to be found in the original publications.One reason for this is that the original authors in the past made a point of telling the reader why they did what they did.Later authors of textbooks will often come along and tell the reader what they did, without sufficient emphasis on the reasons why they did it.For example, as an exercise, you could set yourself the question, Why did Park develop his transform?And write down your answer, not in a one-line sound-bite, but in a short 500-word essay.Then share it with a colleague and discuss!Actually, a whole book could be written on this question, but let’s take one step at a time.

If this sounds like going back to school, you’ve been reading carefully!That’s the intent — go back to school!I would even say, stay away from the internet and restrict your reading to books and papers.Turn off the computer.I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but often what you read on the computer is the clipped results of other people’s study.This is not the same as doing your own study.In some cases of course the internet is handy: for example, the weather forecast, or how to sew a face-mask, but we’re trying to think more deeply.

Now in one area, I’m wrong.Turn the computer back on again.And apply the same principles of study to some of the fine software tools at your disposal.With the best of these, there is always much new material to learn.It might be interesting to try software from a new angle.For example, try coding your own program for a simple function.If you’re new to programming, there is plenty of support available on the internet! — almost too much of it!Many languages are available as freeware, or at a low cost.My suggestion would be to plan a complete exercise in which you write not only a program, but also a set of documents detailing the theory, the operation, and examples.Practise drawing with a CAD program, and all the advanced skills of wordprocessing — typesetting equations, handling cross-references, making an index.Make a point of doing this well enough to share with a friend or colleague, and then you can even practise the art of training and technical support!Even if you do this on a tiny scale, these are valuable skills in engineering and communication, and they will be needed.Doing such projects at home helps to bridge the divide between “working from home” and “normal office”.

I mentioned that in the years of the Great Depression, “they” had a vision.Who were “they” and what was their vision? Clearly there must have been many different visions: some people would have had an inspired vision of the future, while others may have been desperate and hopeless.It must surely be the same today.But the creative visions of a century ago were undoubtedly laying the foundations of the future.So what are those creative visions today?

This is not an easy question.It’s easy to see the problems but not so easy to see the solutions.Personally I have a strong faith in fundamental principles, by which I mean the basic tenets of the subject, like Ohm’s law and Faraday’s law, Newton’s equations of motion and Maxwell’s equations, and of course all the basics of algebra and geometry.Whatever happens to individual technologies in the future, these laws will remain, and the world will need engineers who have a firm grasp of them, who can apply them in all kinds of difficult situations.Need to study something durable?Try Euclid : he’s lasted for over 2300 years.

And how does an engineer acquire this firm grasp of fundamental principles?By study.

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PROFILE

Prof. Miller was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Leeds, U.K., and served an industrial apprenticeship with Tube Investments Ltd. He worked for G.E.C. in the U.K. and General Electric in the United States. From 1986-2011 he was professor of electric power engineering at the university of Glasgow, where he founded the Scottish Power Electronics and Electric Drives Consortium. He has published more than 200 papers and 10 books and 10 patents, and he has given many training courses. He has consulted for several industrial companies in Europe, Japan and the United States. He is a Life Fellow of I.E.E.E. and in 2008 he was awarded the Nikola Tesla award.

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