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Engineering LibreTexts

1.2: Brief History

The need to have some understanding of fluid mechanics started with the need to obtain water supply. For example, people realized that wells have to be dug and crude pumping devices need to be constructed. Later, a large population created a need to solve waste (sewage) and some basic understanding was created. At some point, people realized that water can be used to move things and provide power. When cities increased to a larger size, aqueducts were constructed. These aqueducts reached their greatest size and grandeur in those of the City of Rome and China.

Yet, almost all knowledge of the ancients can be summarized as application of instincts, with the exception Archimedes (250 B.C.) on the principles of buoyancy. For example, larger tunnels built for a larger water supply, etc. There were no calculations even with the great need for water supply and transportation. The first progress in fluid mechanics was made by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) who built the first chambered canal lock near Milan. He also made several attempts to study the flight (birds) and developed some concepts on the origin of the forces. After his initial work, the knowledge of fluid mechanics (hydraulic) increasingly gained speed by the contributions of Galileo, Torricelli, Euler, Newton, Bernoulli family, and D'Alembert. At that stage theory and experiments had some discrepancy. This fact was acknowledged by D'Alembert who stated that, ``The theory of fluids must necessarily be based upon experiment.'' For example the concept of ideal liquid that leads to motion with no resistance, conflicts with the reality.

This discrepancy between theory and practice is called the ``D'Alembert paradox'' and serves to demonstrate the limitations of theory alone in solving fluid problems. As in thermodynamics, two different of school of thoughts were created: the first believed that the solution will come from theoretical aspect alone, and the second believed that solution is the pure practical (experimental) aspect of fluid mechanics. On the theoretical side, considerable contribution were made by Euler, La Grange, Helmholtz, Kirchhoff, Rayleigh, Rankine, and Kelvin. On the ``experimental'' side, mainly in pipes and open channels area, were Brahms, Bossut, Chezy, Dubuat, Fabre, Coulomb, Dupuit, d'Aubisson, Hagen, and Poisseuille. In the middle of the nineteen century, first Navier in the molecular level and later Stokes from continuous point of view succeeded in creating governing equations for real fluid motion. Thus, creating a matching between the two school of thoughts: experimental and theoretical. But, as in thermodynamics, people cannot relinquish control. As results it created today ``strange'' names: Hydrodynamics, Hydraulics, Gas Dynamics, and Aeronautics.

The Navier-Stokes equations, which describes the flow (or even Euler equations), were considered unsolvable during the mid nineteen century because of the high complexity. This problem led to two consequences. Theoreticians tried to simplify the equations and arrive at approximated solutions representing specific cases. Examples of such work are Hermann von Helmholtz's concept of vortexes (1858), Lanchester's concept of circulatory flow (1894), and the Kutta–Joukowski circulation theory of lift (1906). The experimentalists, at the same time proposed many correlations to many fluid mechanics problems, for example, resistance by Darcy, Weisbach, Fanning, Ganguillet, and Manning. The obvious happened without theoretical guidance, the empirical formulas generated by fitting curves to experimental data (even sometime merely presenting the results in tabular form) resulting in formulas that the relationship between the physics and properties made very little sense.

At the end of the twenty century, the demand for vigorous scientific knowledge that can be applied to various liquids as opposed to formula for every fluid was created by the expansion of many industries. This demand coupled with new several novel concepts like the theoretical and experimental researches of Reynolds, the development of dimensional analysis by Rayleigh, and Froude's idea of the use of models change the science of the fluid mechanics. Perhaps the most radical concept that effects the fluid mechanics is of Prandtl's idea of boundary layer which is a combination of the modeling and dimensional analysis that leads to modern fluid mechanics.  Therefore, many call Prandtl as the father of modern fluid mechanics. This concept leads to mathematical basis for many approximations. Thus, Prandtl and his students Blasius, von Karman, Meyer, and Blasius and several other individuals as Nikuradse, Rose, Taylor, Bhuckingham, Stanton, and many others, transformed the fluid mechanics to today modern science.

While the understanding of the fundamentals did not change much, after World War Two, the way how it was calculated changed. The introduction of the computers during the 60s and much more powerful personal computer has changed the field. There are many open source programs that can analyze many fluid mechanics situations. Today many problems can be analyzed by using the numerical tools and provide reasonable results. These programs in many cases can capture all the appropriate parameters and adequately provide a reasonable description of the physics. However, there are many other cases that numerical analysis cannot provide any meaningful result (trends). For example, no weather prediction program can produce good engineering quality results (where the snow will fall within 50 kilometers accuracy. Building a car with this accuracy is a disaster). In the best scenario, these programs are as good as the input provided. Thus, assuming turbulent flow for still flow simply provides erroneous results (see for example, EKK, Inc).


  • Dr. Genick Bar-Meir. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later or Potto license.