"Fax this to Hannibal at once!"

Monday, June 8, 2009
I've always been fascinated by how things work. One of my favorite books as a little boy was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, not because it was written by one of the great American writers, but because it was interested in the same questions I was: what could we do with today's technology if we had access to it several hundred years ago? I've always maintained that a single modern machine gun could have changed the balance of the American Revolutionary War, and very well would have been a Kingmaker back in the days of the Roman Empire. In the book, modern knowledge itself is used by the main character to masquerade as a sorcerer; eclipses seem to come at his command, his knowledge of physics and metallurgy is enough to convince King Arthur and others that he truly possesses arcane rather than "better" knowledge. As they say, any advanced technology is proved in the book to be indistinguishable from magic. With a well-armed or even mediocre knowledge of how things work, you could do very well for yourself in the twelfth century.

But how would you do?

If you've received your high school diploma, you may have a fundamental knowledge of physics, mathematics, biology and the like, but how practical is any of that? Sure, you know that electricity exists and how it exists; you may have been tops in your class at grasping the concept of heliotropism or valence electrons; when it comes right down to it, what good is that going to be?

Let's say you wanted to make a clock. I'm not talking about Big Ben or the NIST Atomic Clock, or even anything as accurate as the Tony the Tiger watch you're wearing right now, proudly displaying your ability to send in 3 UPCs and $5.99 S&H. Let's say you wanted to make a rudimentary timepiece that lost less than - let's say - 30 minutes a day. Could you do it?

I couldn't.

I know how the first clocks work, I understand the mechanics and concepts well enough to potentially design one that, with testing, could be as accurate as my challenge. But I'm missing several crucial skills. The first is an ability to metalwork. The second is the technology to produce the specific metals themselves. It seems to me that a lot of this fancy is built on a premise that you'd have the tools to make what you'd like, and the tools to make them, etc. etc.

It's like a game of Civilization. Even if you had the schematics for the Space Shuttle in 1509, you couldn't build one, even after a lifetime's work. Churches and castles took dozens of men several decades to finish, and let's face it, beautiful as they are, they're not particularly sophisticated technology-wise. I was building fortresses with Lego when I was 8.

I'm not bragging here. I happen to know how clocks and many other pieces of technology work. And there's quite a few I don't understand, even on a fundamental level. The computer you're reading this on now, for example. You know that it houses a CPU and RAM. Once this post has entered your computer, what happens to it? How exactly does a CPU work? Many of us have never even seen one. When confronted with a modern microprocessor with millions of transistors (how do THEY work?), clocks are child's play.


My introduction to mechanical engineering and the understanding of how machines and other pieces of technology work came in the form of a Channel 4 television series called The Secret Life of Machines by Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod. These two eccentric engineers (and though I love both, awful television hosts) went through the inner workings of all sorts of common machines, such as the television and elevator. They used unsophisticated animated drawings and large-scale demonstrations of each individual piece of the main device to show you how the things basically worked. In a half hour, one could learn about the electron gun that powers your TV (though obviously leaving off the superfluous bits like the aerial tuner and audio amplifier) well enough to explain to someone else.

I loved these shows and would watch them constantly, as often as they were on, despite there being a grand total of 18 of them. Tim and in particular Rex were hilarious in their enthusiasm for the experiments they were conducting, often prompting surprised smiles and suppressed giggles from either of them when the experiment worked (or didn't). Tim was the main presenter, but Rex was the one who let you connect to it all. Every other episode or so would have a brief monologue from the bearded northerner, explaining how the concept of whatever this week's machine had helped him in a project or installation of some crazy contraption in the past. These non sequiturs could often be the highlight of the show, with the awkward man trying to explain how washing machine motor and linkage fit into his animatronic suit of armor or whatnot.

Tim is also a prolific cartoonist, writing a comic strip called "The Rudiments of Wisdom", which had the same basic premise as the show, except it was obviously much more condensed and unavailable to a growing boy in the USA. His cartoons make appearances in the show both for instructory reasons and also for humor value. They are very very funny at times, especially for fans of very subdued British humo(u)r, but one would be excused for thinking that they are... a bit amateurish.

But you don't have to take my word for it: The entire series is available on the internet, courtesy of The Exploratorium. Do yourself a favor and watch. Who knows? Knowing how a telephone works might save your life, or the one about copy machines might land you a job some day. If nothing else, the reggae version of "Take Five" that opens the show is worthy of a listen.