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My latest Wall Street Journal column is on the technology of fly fishing
Moore's Law is the leitmotif of the modern age: Incessant
improvements in communication and computing are accompanied by
incessant drops in price. Yet some quite low-tech devices are also
experiencing Moore's Laws of their own, especially those that use
new materials. Even something as mundane as fishing rods.
Innovation in fishing rods requires no government program nor
even results: Productivity is not really a fly-fisherman's goal.
Instead, neophilia is the driving force. The avid fly-fisher
arrives at a riverbank and finds his friend has brought a slender
wisp of carbon fiber that's newer, lighter and more sensitive than
his, with a cooler color, so he experiences an unquenchable thirst
to spend money. (It's usually a "he.")
Recently, the venerable firm Hardy of Alnwick, England-famous
for more than a century for its elegant fishing reels but generally
considered the maker of old-fashioned or overpriced rods-has
launched a line of rods that has taken the fly-fishing world by
surprise. Made from "sintrix" (for silica nano matrix), they are as
much as 30% lighter and 60% stronger than existing carbon-fiber
rods, the company says. But they are not cheap yet: A typical
sintrix rod will set you back $700. Earlier this month, one of the
new Hardy rods won a competition organized by the Yellowstone
Angler, a famous tackle shop, for the second year running.
Fly rods-whose look falls somewhere between a stick and long
whip-aspire to an almost impossible combination of stiffness,
flexibility and strength. A 15th-century German treatise shows how
hard this was to achieve with natural materials: a slender
blackthorn or medlar shoot was fixed to a tapering ash or willow
stick after months of curing, drying and heating. By the 19th
century, fishermen were using lancewood, bamboo and whalebone rods,
soon joined by "greenheart" wood from a South American hardwood
tree. Then came "split cane"-a bundle of slender fibers of bamboo,
bound to make a whippy but strong rod-that dominated design until
the 1970s, fighting off the challenge of glass fiber.
Then, as with oars and golf clubs, split cane quickly gave way
to carbon fiber, made from polymers that have been stretched,
oxidized and heated until all that's left is ribbons of mostly
graphite glued together with resin. The fibers are amorphous,
meaning that, although mostly parallel with the length of the rod,
they twist and double back on each other.
Other sporting objects like baseball bats are being transformed
by carbon nanotubes, molecular cylinders of carbon atoms that are
among the strongest materials yet known, capable of enduring the
tension of a weight of 11 tons on a cable with a millimeter-square
cross section. But they're too inconsistent and stiff for a fly
rod, Hardy concluded.
When Richard Maudslay, descendant of the inventor of the lathe,
became chairman of Hardy after a career in power engineering, he
brought the idea of "finite element analysis," a mathematical tool
that simulates stresses in materials so that new ideas can be
quickly tested. Until then, innovation in fishing rods consisted in
asking expert fishermen what they wanted next.
Norman Fleck of Cambridge University used the finite-element
method to determine that what was needed was material with better
properties in compression. Working with 3M, Hardy tried
impregnating the resin with 100-nanometer silica spheres, in effect
lubricating the carbon fibers with minuscule bearings. The result
was a spectacular combination of strength to resist a big fish and
flexibility to whip a length of line out to land softly on the
Science has moved on, and nanoparticles as small as 2 nanometers
are now in use, so Mr. Maudslay wants to do it again. He argues
that improvements in materials, from steel to plastics to silicon,
are the keys to understanding the industrial revolution. Fixated by
bits and bytes, we sometimes forget the importance of innovation in