Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Balls to the Walls

As electronics and/or software engineers, it is sometimes easy to forget the creativity of early mechanical engineers. In particular, I am thinking of James Watt and his steam engine and the remarkably simple and effective mechanism he used to govern its speed, the centrifugal or fly-ball governor. Basically, the shaft spins faster as the output of the steam engine increases, causing the balls to move outward, lifting the throttle lever which closes the throttle slowing down the engine. There are many variations on this principle, but you get the idea.

Of course, spinning weighted balls can be a bit dangerous so the governor was often enclosed by a cylinder whose interior circumference was just slightly larger than the maximum reach of the balls. When the engine was running flat out, the balls were almost touching the walls of the cylinder, hence our phrase, Balls-to-the-walls.

Whether it is a speeding horse, a flat-out steam engine, a high-speed muscle car or a computer flying through computations, there is a certain thrill in going balls-to-the-walls that I hope you've experienced. There is nothing like it.

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