Feb. 17, 2015 | By Kira

At the peak of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the railway system was a concrete symbol of human and technological progress, of the ability of mankind to reshape his surroundings and improve his quality of life using science, technology, and sheer determination. In that sense, the steam train is not unlike 3D printing and the wave of technological progress we are currently experiencing.

In a project that combined the themes of 3D printing, literary analysis, and the progressive symbolism of the European railway, Yale assistant professor of French Morgane Cadieu and three of her students set out to create a 3D printed model of a train based entirely on descriptions from Emile Zola’s classic 1890 thriller, La Bête Humaine.

Zola was known as one of the leading practitioners of the literary school of naturalism, a movement from the 1880s to 1930s that used incredibly detailed realism to depict social conditions of the time. Unlike the dreamy and fantastical genres of romanticism or surrealism, naturalism invoked everyday observations and thick, ‘technical’ descriptions of the settings. Cadieu’s goal in initiating this project was to teach her students about the importance of close reading, to really force them to delve into the technicalities of Zola’s descriptions in order to create a physical object.

Cadieu and her team of three students, Sienna Jun, John Sununu, and Alexandro Gonzalez-Valvillo, worked alongside Yale’s Centre for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID), a high-tech laboratory and design space that encourages interdisciplinary innovation among students. “Centrally located on the Yale campus, the CEID is the place to be for everything from developing novel medical devices to creating one-of-a-kind musical instruments,” said Vince Wilczynski, deputy dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) and the James S. Tyler Director of the CEID. “Professor Cadieu’s project is the latest example of the CEID’s unique position as a central hub for interdisciplinary ingenuity.” Working with the CEID staff of engineers and designers, Cadieu’s team set about breaking down the literary description of the train in order to translate it into a CAD model that would eventually be printed into the real deal.

Despite the detailed descriptions in the novel, however, building the train was not entirely straightforward. Zola incorporated many metaphors in his writing and tended to exaggerate some features of the train while ignoring others. For example, he only ever describes the two front wheels of the train, disregarding the back. In addition, he gives extra importance to the chimney and whistle, exaggerating the chimney’s height, or the intensity of the whistle’s pitch.

In order to remain true to the text, Cadieu and her team decided build off of Zola’s metaphors no matter how unrealistic they were. Thus, they left the back wheels off of their model, employing some sneaky engineering tricks to make sure the train kept its balance. They also designed an extra-tall chimney and prominent whistle on the front car.

Interestingly, despite these modifications, the final model turned out to be surprisingly realistic. “By exaggerating the proportions, we ended up with the real train,” says Cadieu. “If you look closely at pictures of trains at the end of the 19th century, they really look similar, the chimney looks this high. You can see that how Zola wrote his book is very similar to trains he was watching.”

Once Cadieu and her students had nailed down the essence of the train’s description, it was time to pass along their notes to the CEID design and engineering team to have them transform printed sentences into a physical object. “All this process is a translation,” notes Cadieu. “Zola was translating the images of trains he saw when he was young, then the text was translated in English, then this English text was translated into the computer program that ended up printing the 3D train.”

In the same way that the railway of the 19th century connected vast populations, cities, industries and geography, this 3D printed train blurs the lines between literature, art, science, and technology. “It’s really impressive here at the CEID how you can transform a literary object into something that’s real,” says Cadieu.

The students also benefitted from a unique way to learn about French via the unusual route of technology. “I came to Yale determined to nurture my science background even as I plunged myself into studying French,” said Sununu, a senior majoring in French and economics. “Enabled by the technology of the CEID, this is the first project I know of that’s taken the heart and soul of literature and brought it to life physically.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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