Coal Miner vs. Social Network

One question I’m sure a lot of us ponder at times is this:

“How much coal can one move in a day’s work?”

One approach is to take a look at this video.

It’s pretty clear what he’s trying to tell us. It’s 16 tonnes. Not convinced? Here is a more convincing version. Further reading.

To be frank, I used to think that “16 tonnes” was just a figurative expression but a couple of years ago I was reading up on steam locomotives and I read that a good stoker (the person that moves coal from the coal car to engine) can move 16 tonnes in a shift. Hmmm, that really range a bell for me. Steam Engines Steam Locamotives.

For kicks, lets say that moving 16 tonnes of coal with a shovel is like lifting it to a height of 5 feet. Let’s see now, a metric tonne is 1000kg, a UK ton is 2,240 pounds and a US ton is 2000 pounds. Lets go with the UK ton. So that’s 16 times 11,200 foot pounds (179200 ft-lb) of work done in eight hours. An eight hour shift has 28,800 seconds in it and horse power is 550 foot pounds per second (33,000 foot pounds per minute). So our coal miner is doing 6.22 foot pounds per second. That’s around 0.011 hp. This 1/10th horsepower actually agrees with recent estimates done by scientists.

The day’s work is only 58,064 calories or 58 food calories. I’ve read that an Olympic class athlete can sustain 1/3 hp and that’s a pretty heavy load. We also have to consider that the coal miner lifts his shovel, himself and takes breaks.

Here’s a cool account from moving coal from Kohler Greg who’s an engineer at ANDRITZ Inc. I was introduced to him by my school teacher friend Slater Harrison who lives in Pennsylvania. He told me about this when we were disusing the work volume of a coal miner.

“However, to put it in a hands-on perspective:  when I was a teenager, I used to load rice coal in the hopper of my Dad’s building’s boiler.  It took about 10 small washtubs, each weighing around 50 lbs.  Seems like that use to take about 15 or 20 minutes.  So I was loading (5 ft lift) about a ton per hour.  My 16 ton day would have been 16 hours long.  But with constant practice, I’m sure it would have worked down to an easy 8 hr day.  One year Dad got an electric grain auger with a 1/3 hp motor to screw-feed the coal up into the hopper.  This was a little quicker, and we only had to shovel the coal over to the auger inlet, instead of carrying and lifting it.  But that light duty auger wore out in a year and Dad never replaced it.   That boiler delivered steam heat and hot water to a big store showroom and 3 apartments above it, so it kept a fire all summer too.  Many years we burned over a hundred tons of coal.  It was only $13 a ton back then.  My brother and I had to also carry all the ashes out to the alley from the basement floor.  Luckily the ashes were an order of magnitude lighter than the coal, but that dusty job kept getting put off until it was a substantial undertaking.  Boy was I glad when Dad sold that building, ending that set of chores.”

Now, that we’ve given ourselves brain haemorrhage, it should be fairly clear that a person can do a fixed amount of work per day with a specific set of tools. I suppose we could argue a bit about exactly how much it is but it’s clearly a finite amount.

“…a person can do a fixed amount of work per day with a specific set of tools…”

If we look at social activities, we are facing limits too. We have to sleep, eat, take showers and other stuff. Also some social activity requires resources such as money (long distance charges, time, restaurant bills, and the like). This could mean that our ability to have social ties is limited. Robin Dunbar (a British anthropologist) proposes that because of our brain capacity there is an upper limit on the size of network we can have. Well actually his study is more of group sizes which is different than network size but it’s sort of related. People often refer to this limit as Dunbar’s Number or The Dunbar Number and it is thought to be about 150.

People say maximum network size is 150 because of the Dunbar Limit.

Eventually steam engines needed more than 16 tonnes of coal per work shift so they made mechanical stokers to increase capacity. (And you thought I was done talking about steam engines).

So now can we argue that the use of social software tools can increase the upper limits of the size of a social network?

Don’t think that I’m talking about something like the number of “friends” or “contacts” you have within any particular tool or system. I’m talking about the effective network size.

I’m betting that some of these tools increase our capacity much the same way as the mechanical stoker. We’re adding more fuel to the engine so the machine can do more work for us.

What’s your opinion?

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