Three Sheets to the Wind

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

If you've ever had to get something dry-cleaned, you know that it can cost a king's ransom. Why the high price tag? It all has to do with viscosity. Water has a viscosity of 14.7 bars, while air's viscosity is a mere 1.3 bars. This means that a washing machine which cleans with air must generate currents that are about 11 times as fast as a washing machine using water. A standard household washing machine moves water between 8 and 12 mph. So a dry cleaning machine must create winds between 90 and 135 mph. Folks, we're talking jet engine speeds.

In fact, the first dry cleaning machines (they were known then as AeroCleansing Machines or ACMs), were jet engines. Near the end of WWII, the Japanese Navy introduced a revolutionary new aircraft - the Nakajima Kikka J9Y - which, for the first time in history, propelled itself with a constant jet of air rather than a conventional propeller. The J9Y could travel 3 times as fast as other planes at the time, and might have been a trump card for the Japanese had they not squandered nearly all of their skilled pilots on kamikaze missions.

After the war, American forces seized the virtually unused fleet of J9Y's and started a program to train American pilots to fly them. There was one fatal wrench in the works, however. The Japanese built their aircraft to use standard Japanese controls, so that turning right made the jet bank left and vice versa. Anyone who has tried to drive in Japan or play a Japanese arcade game can imagine that it was practically impossible for the American pilots to master the new control system before careening into the ground. After 10 botched attempts, the Navy put the kibosh on the program, leaving the U.S. government with nearly 300 unusable super-planes.

The fleet of J9Y's sat in a hangar in Arkansas for 12 years before Navy mechanic Eli Lavare, while working on an American jet, accidentally stepped too close to the jet intake and was sucked through the engine. When Lavare picked himself up, almost 100 feet from the plane he was working on, he noticed that his uniform, previously covered in grease and grime, was now completely spotless. He showed this to his supervisor, who immediately thought of the unused J9Y's.

Within a few years, the Navy had converted nearly all of the J9Y engines into ACMs which were used at first to clean uniforms. Since each machine was worth about $800 million in today's money, no small business could afford an ACM, so civilian dry cleaning didn't become a reality until 1954, when Maytag Corporation purchased several ACM's from the US Navy. Maytag rented time on these washers to other businesses. Many schools and corporations began using them for their uniforms, and small dry cleaning businesses started popping up all over the place. Of course, since the clothes had to be sent by mail to the nearest Maytag Cleaning Center, it might take several weeks for customers to get them back.

The modern dry cleaning machine was first introduced in 1973 by Ford Motor Co. By using a nautilus shape, Ford was able to get the air whipping at the breakneck speeds necessary for dry cleaning in a machine the size of a small car. Today, these machines still cost almost 300 grand, and in the end, it's the customer who foots the bill.

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Blogger Ricky Welch said...

Is this why bikers never bathe?

2:01 PM  

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