I am going to give a talk to the Museum of American Heritage in Palo Alto this coming week extolling the virtues of working with the hands, an activity which has been an important part of my life, even though I have earned my income as an engineer and a professor. But manual work has brought me the pleasure and quick positive feedback that has enabled me to sail happily through the ups and downs of my mental work. And thinking about my upcoming talk is causing me to become even more impressed with hands.
The other night my wife and I attended a Beethoven recital by Richard Goode, one of the top pianists of the world. I played the piano quite a bit in my youth, beginning with lessons in a small town and by the time I was in high school playing in the region. I played quite a bit until I was in my 30’s, but more and more for social groups, and finally at one point quit, because I realized I had good hands, but was neither a musician nor willing to devote the time and effort required to become really good. Goode is really good. He is a wonderful musician, and has the kind of hands one can develop by constant practice over many years (he is 70). Since I have not kept up my piano chops, I was amazed at his manual dexterity, and could not help but wonder what would have happened had I had better teaching and kept at it.
Today I was leafing through one of my favorite books, The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson,(see recommended book list), a neurologist and long time medical director of the Peter F. Ostwald Health Program for Performing Artists at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. It is a well documented book full of thought provoking information and data about the human hand. But as a life-long specialist in hands, Wilson does not simply mention that we are lucky to have opposable thumbs. He goes into detail about the evolution of the thumb, the arm, the shoulder, and the brain as a unit and a very important one. As he points out, the opposable thumbs are only one part of the system, and would not be that significant if it were not for the grasping, positioning, and subtle feelings and motions we are able to do. And he dwells on the sophistication and complexity of the hand (the thumb alone is controlled by 9 muscles entering from the forearm and the rest of the hand) and we seem to control it in its many tasks without even thinking about it. Spend a bit of time watching yours and other people’s hands (and arms), and you should be impressed. In one of the chapters in Wilson’s book, he compares the tasks the professional piano player’s hand must do with those of a professional rock climber. Diversity of function indeed.
I worry that use of the hand and related parts of the body is losing its centrality in the lives of many people. Wilson makes the point that the brain and the hand developed together—a duo. It seems to me that many people who seem to be neglecting one of the duo and making their living with their minds, are perhaps losing something by not building the manual skills that would bring them pride and pleasure. I also worry that hands are being neglected in education. I started out in life by growing up on a farm and being taught a large number of manual skills, planning to be either a carpenter or a tool and die maker until I decided to become an engineer (I still worked in shops in the summer while in college).
Hopefully I don’t have to argue that hands-on experience in the basic processes necessary to design and build products gives one a better base to judge what is possible, what is not possible, what is good, and what is bad. Painting custom antique and custom cars by hand gives one valuable insights to programming a robot to do so, and working on the factory floor equips one to better supervise others that are doing so. When I graduated from college, I was offered a job at Warner Swasey, then the premier machine-tool builder in the U .S. I was quite flattered, because they had never offered a job to a Caltech graduate, and the fact that I had graduated #1 in engineering was not the reason. They wanted me because I had worked summers in a shop. And even then, I would have begun my career with two more years working in their shop. They wanted to make the best machines they could, and were not interested in engineers that had not served their time as machinists. The U. S. is not doing such things as much any more, and perhaps as a result, the quality of our products has slipped relative to countries who offer more hands-on experience to their new employees. In many (most?) cases. beginning at the bottom of an organizational chart results in unique proficiency at the top. Why people working with their hands are often at the bottom of an organizational chart (except for the fortunate few like surgeons and piano players) is a topic for another post.
I have spent many hours in my life doing such things as restoring old machines, maintaining cars and houses, and making and fixing electro mechanical devices and other things. I think that without this experience, I would be much less competent at either engineering or teaching. In fact, I have long had the pleasure of being involved in a growing activity at Stanford called the Product Realization Laboratory, led by Professor David Beach, in which students design, develop, and manufacture products. I am happy to say that now people are catching onto the value of such a program. Once engineering schools gave their students hands-on problems. Then they went through a long period of becoming increasingly theoretical. Now hands-on work is coming back. Good for individuals and for the economy—and for product quality.