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How Things Work
The Inner Life of Everyday Machines
Photographs by Nick Mann
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COMFORT IN THINGS
PEOPLE ARE MESSY. They’re complicated and unpredictable. They can hurt you, and sometimes they hurt inside. Machines are not like that. They are what they are. They don’t lie or cheat or turn the screw just when they know it will hurt the most. (Except printers. Printers are the psychopaths of machines.) Machines follow the rules. Even if you don’t understand those rules at first, once you learn them, they will never change. They will remain true and the same, forever and always. This is especially true of machines you make yourself.
Other people’s machines, complex manufactured things, can be frustrating and difficult to master. (Hence the existence of shooting ranges in Las Vegas where you can bring your printer and shoot at it with pistols, assault rifles, sawed-off shotguns… you know, whatever it takes.) But a thing you’ve made yourself is an open book. As you design it and bring it into existence, the machine reveals its nature to you one step at a time. In the end, it exists because of you, and you will always know it better than anyone else. You know not only its final form, but all the roads not taken, the other shapes and ways of being it could have embraced. When a manufactured thing breaks, it can be nearly impossible to fix, but when a machine you made breaks, well, you made it once, you can make it again.
A life built around making things is a good life. When you make things, they become a big part of who you are. And, as you make them, you sometimes find that they in turn are making you.
FOR MANY YEARS I worked on creating a computer program called Mathematica. Many other people worked on it too, but for several years, at the beginning, the Notebook user interface portion of it was mine and mine alone. I found great satisfaction in watching this creation of years come together. It was my life. (Literally: I had no other life, not even a date, for a decade.)
Even today I can see in my mind the structures inside this program, the internal logic, the chaos in a few places. I haven’t looked at the actual code in many years, but if I did, I’m sure I would find many old friends, along with new ones added by the programmers who have come after me.
I still use Mathematica nearly every day to do my work. Yes, sometimes I curse my former self for bugs I could have fixed or features I will never see because no one else will ever care enough to add them. It was my baby, but not anymore. And, like my kids who were once small but then grew up, I have to accept my baby for what it is, not resent it for what it might have been.
Making Mathematica shaped me for twenty-three years. It’s an important thing in the world, and I am proud of my work on it. But I’m also glad that when the chance presented itself to make something else, I took that road.
I got started collecting elements by accident, but have since spent a lot of time with them—I wrote a few books about them. Elements are good. Like kids, they are primal and raw, unique and universal. Everything is made of elements—everything we know and everything we are. And the kids, too, they are made of elements. The machines we call molecules are some of the most intricate and remarkable machines in existence. The machines called DNA and the machines called proteins are life itself to us. The time I spent with elements changed my life, and made me better. More interesting, I think.
I Grew Up with Things
SOFTWARE AND ELEMENTS are great, but this book is not about software or elements. It is about the certain and comfortable world of mechanical things. I made, played with, took apart, broke, and fixed a lot of things when I was young, and in the years since. I learned a lot from these things. Most of all I learned to love them. They changed me. They were there for me in good times and bad. They kept me going, and opened worlds for me. These things are now a part of my past, but other things are very much part of my present, and yours. I have gathered many interesting things for you to see and learn about in this book. I hope that in the pages that follow, you will see the beauty I do in the inanimate, yet very alive world of things.
The Mechanisms in This Book
IN THIS BOOK you will find chapters on things with clear cases, locks, clocks, scales, and the machines needed to make a potholder from scratch. These topics may seem random—and, OK, the chapter on clear things is indeed a bit random (but totally fun, I promise).
The other chapters, however, are anything but random. They represent ancient and foundational machines that helped us measure our world, secure our place in it, and guide us into the fearfully and wonderfully made world of today. No finite list of inventions can ever be complete, and there are many more I would have liked to write about, but these are a good start. By understanding these mechanisms, you can understand a big part of how the mechanical world works.
Writing this book was an absolute joy, and I hope you get a sense of the pleasure it was to encounter and learn about each and every one of the fine things on this page and the many pages that follow.
WHEN I WAS young I saw for the first time a picture of a telephone with a transparent case. You could look inside and see all the electronic components that made it work! My first thought was “wow, that is so cool,” followed by “I want one.” But then I got worried.
A clear telephone seemed obviously superior to every other possible telephone, so why weren’t all telephones made with clear cases? Who could possibly want a phone that hid all the good stuff inside a pointlessly opaque case? I knew it couldn’t cost more to use clear plastic rather than colored plastic. Did the people who made telephones just not realize that they could use clear plastic? Could people smart enough to make a whole telephone really be that dumb? It was at this moment that I realized, with a sense of loss, that maybe not everyone wanted to see inside their telephones. Maybe a lot of people cared more about the color of the case than about how the parts fit together inside it. I’m still sad about this.
I never did get a clear telephone as a kid, and now that I have one, it’s too late to use it: we haven’t had a landline phone connection at my house for years.
Writing a book about how things work is a great excuse to be able to collect a tremendous number of things with clear cases, which are useful for understanding how products are put together. They are also every bit as fun and cool as I imagined they would be. What I did not imagine is that many of them exist only because of prisons.
The Transparent Redemption
MY FIRST HINT of the existence of a vast prison-industrial complex of clear objects came when I saw a television much like these two at my friend Koatie’s house some years ago. I thought she was being trendy, but she explained that it was her old prison TV (she used to be trouble). They make them this way so that it’s impossible for convicts to hide drugs, knives, or other forbidden contraband inside the case. Little did I know that this TV was just the tip of the iceberg.
In fact, several brands and styles of old-school CRT (cathode-ray tube) televisions with clear cases were in circulation in prisons for many years. That big gray mass of glass that you see behind the screen is the “tube” part. It’s hollow and opaque, so presumably the perfect place to hide contraband. But actually the tube is filled with a vacuum, so the minute you try to cut a hole in it to hide something, the whole television will violently implode.
A CRT television is full of dangerously high voltages, even days after it’s been unplugged (because the capacitors in its power supply can hold dangerous amounts of charge for quite a while). Turning on a television with its case removed is not a good idea, so it’s really neat to be able to safely see inside one while it’s in operation.
A CLOCKWORK RADIO
THIS IS MY all-time favorite clear object, because it combines clockwork and electronic technologies. No batteries necessary here because it employs a hand-crank, wind-up generator.
The generator creates electricity in pulses that come and go many times per second. On average there is enough energy to run the radio, but the circuitry needs steady power, not pulses. A capacitor stores up energy at the peaks of the pulses and releases it during the low points. In this way it smooths out the voltage going to the radio.
In a clever twist, the capacitor also feeds any voltage it accumulates back into the generator, causing it to push back against the force of the spring, slowing down the rate of unwinding. When the sound volume is low and the radio is using only a little power, the capacitor stays charged for quite a while and the generator spins fast only once every few seconds. But when the sound is turned up and the radio needs more power, the generator spins fast all the time.
THIS EXAMPLE OF a clear typewriter is a fascinating hybrid of technologies from different eras: it stands halfway between computer and mechanical device. When you strike the keys, the letters go into a tiny bit of memory on a microchip inside the machine, just enough to store one line of text at a time. You can make corrections to that one line before hitting the Return key, which will trigger the line to print. That’s the computer part. But then the mechanical part takes over: A wheel with lots of spokes, one for each letter and symbol, spins rapidly to position the correct spoke at the top. Then a strong and very fast electronic hammer called a solenoid whacks the spoke, which presses its raised letter onto an ink ribbon layered between the spoke and the paper. An impression of the letter is made on the page.
Although the outside world has moved on to computers, in prisons time has stood still, and clear typewriters, sometimes brand new, still circulate in systems around the country.
THE HAIR DRYER
A CLEAR HAIR dryer! Not just one but several different models! Finding these particular objects (on eBay and in prison supply catalogs) was the moment I realized that this thing with clear objects went deeper than I’d ever thought possible. If they make clear hair dryers, anything is possible.
Hair dryers are unusual in that they are the only common handheld electrical devices that consume a lot of power. In fact, they are typically set up so that at their highest setting, they draw the maximum amount of power that the electrical code legally allows you to pull from a standard wall socket. If manufacturers could make them to use any more power, they would.
There’s a reason why all normal hair dryers have exactly three heat settings (cool, low, and high), and three fan speed settings (off, low, and high). Power from the wall is AC, which stands for alternating current: it switches back and forth between positive and negative voltage 60 times per second (positive for 1/120 of a second, then negative for the next 1/120 of a second, and so on). It just so happens that there is an extremely cheap, small, and efficient device, called a diode, which allows the flow of electricity in one direction and blocks it in the other.
If you make AC power flow through a diode before it gets to its destination, only half the power (represented by the shaded red area below) will make it through. The low/high power switch in the hair dryer simply patches a diode in or out of the circuit. When the diode is in, only half the power gets through—there’s your low-power mode.
Anything more than two power levels is much more complicated and expensive to achieve. In fact, if you want more than two levels, you might as well go all the way to infinitely variable power, which is done with a device called a triac, found in some expensive hair dryers and in all wall switch light dimmers.
TRUE STORY. IN
- "A stunning coffee-table book with detailed photos. [Author] Theodore Gray explores how everyday things work in great detail, going so far as to build some of them himself, and provides a new perspective on these objects that most of us would never have unless we knew them intimately...What Gray did in his previous books about elements, molecules, and reactions, he has now done for the mechanical systems that run our world, and the result is a beautiful appreciation for systems we all often overlook."—Ars Technica
- "Another masterpiece."—Boing-Boing
- On Sale
- Oct 22, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal