438. Machine Porn

On Monday, we started talking about steampunk, then wandered into changes in science fiction and in real world technology. Picking up where we left off . . .

I always watch the PBS program A Craftsman’s Legacy. It is very steampunk, although that may not be obvious until later in this post. The most recent episode was a jeans maker. If I weren’t already hooked on the program, that’s something I would never have watched. In actual fact, the making of jeans was boring, but the program turned out to be twenty-five minutes of pure Machine Porn. Through the whole show, every scene was an orgy of early twentieth century sewing machines of every specialized type, all whirring and clunking with their working parts in naked sight.

The only thing moving on a modern sewing machine is the needle, but there is a computer screen where you can tell it what to do. One modern machine will do more than a warehouse full of old ones, but but everything is hidden. It is a classic black box. It does stuff, but you don’t get to see how.

You can see the procession from hands-on to hands-off, and from visible to hidden in boy’s fiction. Tom Swift (later called Senior) could build anything with his own hands back in the twenties. Tom Swift Junior in the fifties and sixties could design anything, but he usually turned it over to his chief engineer to build the prototype. In the first Rick Brant book (1947), work on their moon rocket was delayed when they couldn’t get a certain type of tube (that’s valve in the British half of the world). By book number nine (1952), Rick was learning how to make printed circuits and was introduced to transistors. We watched him build a control unit, but once it was finished, it was sealed and no one else would ever see its guts.

Real science has followed the same progression. Galileo did his experiments by rolling lead balls down ramps. Today science requires a Large Hadron Collider.

Do I miss the good old days? Not at all. I’ve been living in the future since I was eight years old. I am pointing out that one byproduct of the Good New Days is that the working parts of everything are hidden, and that has consequences.

I spent the majority of my teaching career trying to make up for this loss. When I taught pulleys, I used homebuilt equipment with heavy weights so the kids could actually feel the difference when they changed the mechanical advantage. Every year, students were divided into teams of three or four and they all built gizmos, which were devices of their own design that carried out an assigned task. It was a different task every year and they were not allowed to take their work home, so Dad or older brother couldn’t cheat. All they had to work with was a shop full of tools, a pile of donated materials, and what they had learned. They had to see their gizmos in their heads and build them with their hands. No black boxes here.

Steampunk fits in here, as well. Steampunk is the meeting of the past and the future. As part of the past, it is familiar and understandable. It is also full of all the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries’ hopes and fears. Retrofuturistic is one word used to describe it, and it fits. Of course, as a word, retrofuturistic is as strange as the thing it points toward.

The clockwork aspect of steampunk is certainly one of its charms, especially in steampunk DIY and illustrations. We look at the pictures on the page, or the pictures in our mind while we read, and think, “I understand that. I could build that.”

And we could. Or at least the better, smarter self we all become when we sit down to read science fiction could.

In clockwork, once you take the back off the watch, everything is visible. If you look long enough, you can figure our what makes it tick.

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