I really miss being able to see the details of machines. Not only are they exciting, but often beautiful. I am suspect, of course, being an engineer, but so be it. When I was a kid, I used to love standing too close to steam powered railroad locomotives, not only for the emotional thrill of their size and sounds, but also to try to figure out how they worked (possible for a kid in those days). I don’t stand too close to modern train locomotives, or in fact, even notice them.
Something happened many years ago (1920’s and 30’s) to start us hiding the workings of machinery.
The photo at the left shows a caterpillar 30, probably built in the 1920’s, with the usual kid playing on it. The next photo shows a restored caterpillar 10 manufactured a few years later, but with a more “modern” approach to design. Note that the workings are shrouded in sheet metal. The third photo shows a beat up caterpillar 10 without the sheet metal (I am restoring it and straightening out the sheet metal). To me, it is more interesting without the sheet metal, but I will put it back on so it doesn’t bother people.
The final tractor photo shows a caterpillar tractor manufactured in 1995. Certainly looks faster (it is) and more powerful (it is) and more technically sophisticated (it is), but what is inside of its sports-car body panels? Give or take a bunch of electronics and a steering wheel rather than clutch/brake levers, it is similar. But I’ll bet the reaction of most people (not farmers) is not to care—they just like the exterior. (I do admit it is a great tractor and I like the exterior also). But this tractor is perhaps more difficult to understand and to maintain than the Caterpillar 30, as well as not as much fun for kids to play on.
I think it is worrisome that we are no longer paying as much attention to how things work. Personal computers are a good example —no clue as to what is in the package. In fact, most of us are perhaps happier that way. But the role technology is playing is increasing so that hiding it may delude us, especially if covered with modern marketing. The “Cloud”, being touted by companies with enormous server capability (Google, Apple, IBM, Amazon, etc.) is causing massive ignorance. Traditional clouds are beautiful, especially close to sunset, the weightlessly drift through the sky, ever changing, and hopefully in California promise eventual much needed rain, and in summer cooler weather. They are almost magic.
The “Cloud” being sold by computer companies is another example of intentionally hiding technology that our society should better understand. It consists of access to the company servers (not all servers), and is an attempt by the company to function as our digital memory and provide our operating systems, applications, and other software (conveniently allowing them to charge us a monthly fee). This cloud consists of glass fibers and other conductors under ground, on the ocean floor, and occasionally in sewers, feeding massive number of digital devices in anonymous , windowless, extremely hot buildings that suck huge amounts of electrical energy not only to accomplish their function, but also to prevent themselves from overheating. Some time ago I mentioned a book entitled Tubes, by Andrew Blum. An excellent read if you think the “Cloud” is either beautiful or magic, or if you don't understand the physical components of the internet.
What’s happened to us? Many things, but the directions of technology and the strengthening of the design profession have certainly had large inputs. The realization of the advantages of low-drag aircraft, beginning with the evolution of fighter planes and the design of airplanes such as the DC-3 in 1934 was certainly instrumental. The photo at the right shows a famous pencil sharpener prototype designed by one of the leading designers of the 1930’s, Raymond Loewy in 1933. It never hit the market. But granted that it would only sharpen one size of pencil, it does look like it could move through one’s office rapidly, and would have probably sold because of the then love of “streamlining”. I have opened the hood of a few “luxury” cars only to find that the engine is almost entirely shrouded, although it represents a high level of craftsmanship. And I can tell long and now amusing stories of putting a new battery into my admittedly sleek Apple iPhone.
I am for unwrapping and better understanding how things work. Not only is it interesting, but we can better evaluate what we are doing to ourselves.