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January 2003 - A Sense of History

I recently visited a model railway exhibition and was admiring a layout based on the West Australian Government Railways. The layout was one of many showcasing superb modelling skills but it stood out as having "gotten it right". This layout looked familiar whilst the others were "foreign" - English, other Australian or US based railways. The penny suddenly dropped. That was an NZR train circling the layout and those were NZR wagons filling the yard. The operators must have known I was coming and put on a special show for me.

It transpires that WAGR imported 100 4-wheel open wagons from NZR back in the 1891. These wagons lead to the adoption of the Norwegian Hook couplings, that were the standard on NZR, as the WAGR standard. A gentleman by the name of T.H. Rotherham, Locomotive Superintendent for NZR, served as a consultant to WAGR before becoming WAGR's Chief Mechanical Engineer soon after the sale of these wagons. Hence the commonality of wagon design went well beyond those that had been imported. I note also that the design of the builder's plates applied by the Midland Junction Railway Workshops of the WAGR were identical to those used by the NZR workshops.

I find this history fascinating since the first conventional railway lines in New Zealand were laid by the Christchurch Provincial railways to the wide gauge of 5'3" and the first locomotives came to NZ from Melbourne, Victoria. NZ, of course, managed to sort the gauge problems out whilst the railway system was still in its infancy.

In today's throw-away world, history tends to take the back seat. We rarely consider the things of today in the context of where they have come from. I find it amusing that the international road symbol for a train is a steam engine. A great many of you reading this would never have seen a steam engine at work! Most would have been cut up for scrap before you were born. But I won't go there!

I personally think it is important to look at the history of the things about us. This context is important to our understanding of what we do and think. Even I, as a relative newcomer to the field of Respiratory Science have had to set up X-Y plotters, chart recorders and HP amplifiers to make measurements in sleep and exercise. Manual measurement and calculation for basic routine assessment was not very far back in time. It is mind boggling how far technology has taken us in the last 10 years. How many of you remember using minicomputers like the PDP-11 for exercise testing since it was the only way you could get the computing grunt to do the job? But is it progress?

It is, perhaps, interesting to ponder whether having access to more "numbers", more "measurements" has improved clinical care. How often, I wonder, do we do tests for little more than academic curiosity? Do we get the maximum information from the data we generate or are decisions still based on the core FEV1.0 and VC measurements? I suspect that those making the decisions don't always understand the rest of the information because those teaching the students didn't have access to the more detailed measurements when they trained. Is it our responsibility as Scientists to ensure Medical staff are updated with respect to the utility and validity of the measurements we are able to make?

The increased apparent precision of modern analysers conveys a false sense of accuracy on many measurements. The ease of measurement can easily let us forget the principles and, more importantly, the assumptions behind the method we may be using. How many of us today are familiar with De Bois's description of plethys-mography or Krogh's development of the single breath diffusion assessment? Just because a modern instrument can make the measurement for you, doesn't mean that the assumptions are valid under the conditions of the measurement.

I believe a sense of history is important. It is important to retain context in initiating new developments, planning teaching sessions to advance new knowledge and in charting the development of our profession, our Society. Heaven forbid that I will still be writing these columns in 5 years time but it should make for interesting reading to see what the issues may be in 5 years' time today compared with today.

Take time out over January to ponder on your own history and how that thread is woven into the tapestry of life. You may well be surprised at the contribution your single thread has made to the whole. Ponder too on how the threads you contribute will figure in the tapestry that will be 2003.


December, 2002

P.S. As with most things in life history has a way of coming full circle. When Perth's suburban rail network was electrified a few years back, the existing stock of Railcars was sold to Auckland for use on that city's suburban network.




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Monday, 27 February 2012, 21:59:59