|MadSci Network: Engineering|
Madison: I congratulate you on finding out for yourself what a bent is, and for asking a Really Good question! So far, I've asked the 4 or 5 oldest engineers I know; the vice-chairman of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance Association timber bridge committee; about half of the Union Pacific Railroad's engineering department; the chief bridge engineers of the Illinois Central and Rock Island railroads; many members of the Structural Engineer's association; a writer of historical mysteries who is an excellent researcher; plus consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Webster's Unabridged; Plus a half-dozen etymology dictionaries. None of them had an answer. The first published use that the OED had was 1815, and it says that the word is "U.S. in origin". but not where it comes from. Its use as a frame in a building goes back to 1600. Most jobs have special names for things they use. In structural engineering, for example, we have "bent", but also "Stringer", "trestle" (a bridge made up of stringers and bents), "Web", "flange", "stiffeners" and Girders (a bridge part made up of flanges held apart by a web, braced with stiffeners). "Screed" is the theoretical line that a road surface follows, and also the machine that strikes off concrete to that line. Special language like that has a purpose. Not, mind you, just to confuse outsiders and elevate the status of the people in the know. It specifies and clarifies what is being discussed, so that everyone involved knows exactly what is going on. For example, if a foreman says "We need to replace a pile in that third bent" his workers know exactly what he means. Likewise, if the captain of a sailboat says "Trim the mainsheet!" the crew knows exactly what rope to pull and which way. Saying "pull the rope on the big white thing that direction" takes longer and has a larger chance for error. I know of a case where a train was wrecked because one man misunderstood a single word. As for "bent" -- Here are a few guesses, based on what I learned researching your question: (1) the word "bent" also means inclined. The outer piles of a bent lean inwards, (we call this "battered"), in order to resist sideways forces. (2) One of the definitions of "bend" means to bind things together in parallel. So a group of pilings could be described as being "bent together". Also things placed parallel were said to be a "bend". (3) Early frames were assembled on the ground and hoisted up into position. Raising something like that might be said to be "bending" it upwards. (4) The support for the cover of a wagon, or some tents, is a hoop shape bent from a thin wood sapling. A building bent is a similar shape and fills the same role. Are any of these right? I don't know, though I'm kind of fond of #1. I'll have to ask some engineer who was around back in 1815. I'm going to keep my ears open, just in case someone does know.
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