tim   .


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.   hunkin





(This page is also available in Spanish, translated by Maria Ramos

I just finished making a clock for London Zoo last week. Its very ornate and the hour performance is quite elaborate. Engineers often see me as an artist, and though there’s truth in this, I actually spend most of my time solving conventional engineering problems. The computer and pneumatics I used on this clock are principally used for industrial automation. The clock has to be very reliable, particularly because it will run unattended. It also has to be totally safe, to comply with all the current electrical, machinery and play equipment standards.

 A long time ago I studied engineering science, theoretical engineering. What is obvious to me now, is that even with the most sophisticated analysis, all engineering design remains an art. Engineering institutions trumpet their use of theoretical stuff like pure science and virtual reality, but take the intuitive messing about for granted. What I want to argue is that humans are uniquely talented at ‘thinking with our hands’, and its wrong to discard ‘intuitive’ engineering as a historical curiosity.

 Two years ago a hero of mine called Francis Evans died. He was an engineering professor at Sheffield Hallam university who had a passion for the history of technology. He is best known for the arch exhibit he invented - now in almost every science centre in the world. (You use a former to arrange the blocks of the arch. Once complete the former can be removed and the arch is strong enough to walk over.) But Francis is a hero to me because of a paper he wrote called ’Two legs, thing using and talking’. It completely changed the way I think about technology, and about myself. 

His idea is that technology isn’t just something outside ourselves, it’s an innate part of human nature, like sex, sleeping or eating, and that its been a major driving force in evolution. Tool using, along with language and bipedalism, is essentially what makes us human. The complicated theories used to explain why we first stood up are largely unnecessary. Our hands simply became too useful for holding tools to waste them on walking. 

The earliest known two-legged ape was ‘Lucy’,who lived about 3.7 million years ago. The earliest ‘human’ was homo habilis, about 2 million years ago. The first civilisations and written language only appeared about 10,000 years ago, after humans brains had grown two times larger than Homo Habilis’ and four times larger than Lucy’s. Some very powerful evolutionary advantage must have driven this rapid increase in brain size. Francis argues it was simply the enormous potential for hand/eye co-ordination and tool using. Even powerful computers still have great trouble catching balls, one of many skills we take for granted. Even people who have no interest in technology know they can’t push string or bend glass. They have an innate sense of materials. Equally, they will pick up a stick and use it to clean mud off their shoes, to help them walk over rough ground, to shoo off a cow, to grab an apple from a tree, and many other things, without pausing for thought. This crude and opportunistic sort of tool using, which involves no craft skills, is so innate we are unaware of it. However, it is creative, and Francis argues it is the origin our creativity.

 He concludes by speculatively linking his idea to the origins of language.  Chomski, writing in the 70s, proposed that all languages have in common elements of their structure, like subjects, verbs and objects. Francis suggests this structure stems from the way our brain is hardwired to think about technology. Subject, verb, object comes from ‘hammer, hit, nail’.   

 He came to his ideas from teaching engineering students about Henry Maudsley, the craftsman who almost single-handedly invented modern machine tools in the early 19th century. Amongst other things, he made a screw originating machine. His thread was then used to make the threads on his lathes, which in turn were used to cut the threads on other companies lathes. The threads on all today’s screws, nuts and bolts and machines tools are all direct descendants. It was puzzling how Maudsley came to have such ‘clever hands’ and invent his machine tools that triggered Francis’s interest in the origins of technology.  

His paper never got much recognition in academic circles. Its scope was enormous, its style was anecdotal and didn’t fit in with any discipline. I’m sure it would be possible to pick holes in details of his argument, but broad ideas like this can still have great value. Francis knew Professor Richard Gregory, the eminent psychologist, and I know Richard agrees that there is a lot of truth in his paper. 

I was bowled over by his ideas – they seemed so obvious I wondered why they weren’t common knowledge. They explained all sorts of things about the way I think. I’ve always enjoyed making things since I was a small child. My education repeatedly tried to interest me in more intellectual subjects, but none felt as satisfying as making things. Francis’s theory made this seem perfectly reasonable.  I sometimes find myself making a part in a completely different way than I’d planned without any conscious thought. Actually faced with the materials and the tools, my hands can just take over. Also I’m unable to sit for long without finding something to fiddle with. It’s usually not a conscious process, more like monks handling prayer beads. Francis’s ideas made sense of this, it’s a basic part of our brains’ function, learning and playing with our hands. 

 Until I read Francis’s paper, I assumed I was a dinosaur, a throwback to the 19th century. My workshop is a picturesque thatched barn full of basic wood and metalworking tools, and a comprehensive store, full of materials and parts. Some of these parts are new, ordered from catalogues, and some are old, from scrapyards and specialist car boot sales. I work with Graham, an electrician who got fed up working 9 to 5, who now puts his hands to anything. I also have swallows nesting in my stores every summer so I can never close the doors and my neighbour’s deaf ginger cat who spends his time in his basket in the centre of the main worktable. The whole place definitely looks like something from another age. 

However, Francis’s paper made me question the assumption that my workshop and working methods are obsolete and persuaded me to write this. I now see my workshop in a totally new and glamorous way, and my hands on process as even more fundamental than pure science or fine art.  I work in this way because I enjoy it, but compared to the many stages of drawings and prototypes that most machines go through, it is actually fantastically efficient – Graham and I built the zoo clock in four months. To explain why its so efficient, I should describe how I work in a bit more detail.

I sketch almost all the parts I make. This sort of back of the envelope scribbling is very different from precise engineering drawings - I change my mind all the time, scrubbing over the lines again and again. Drawing like this is a wonderful tool for thinking, for exploring different solutions, rejecting bad ones and developing good ones. I also use Solidworks, and I can see the power of CAD programs like this, though I still prefer drawing. Drawing parts is actually very similar to drawing cartoons - scrubbing over lines, trying to make the idea clear and concise, thinking up endless variations and embellishments.

Drawing parts does depend on experience. I don't remember drawing my machines much as a child, and when I started making things again after leaving Cambridge I still did very little drawing, working out the detail by trial and error. There were so many factors, particularly with moving parts, that drawings didn't help with - will a lever be rigid enough, will a spring counteract a weight, will a grub screw be enough to hold a pulley on a shaft, will a motor be powerful enough, will it stop quickly enough. The only way to find out things like this was to try them. There is something intuitively obvious that it must be a good idea to make use of as many of the senses as possible (smells and sounds can also be very useful in identifying a problem), but in practice trying everything out is very slow. With experience, it’s much quicker to solve design problems on paper.

Drawing parts effectively also depends on having the right information to start with. I usually draw one part and then make it immediately, before drawing the next part. I have a rough overall plan, but the detailed parts are best built up one at a time. Each finished part informs the requirements of the next. I would find it very limiting to draw an entire machine in detail before starting to make it – I would have to be much more cautious, something I recognise in many engineers. Many decisions are still best made by trial and error, essentially by prototypes. In my workshop, with everything I need around me I can seamlessly switch from drawing to making a prototype.

My cluttered workshop, particularly the comprehensive stores of bits I’ve salvaged or otherwise acquired, is also vital to my working process. Browsing through my stores, I often think of a better way of making a part, and sometimes ways of adapting something I’ve already got. The stores and the tools are literally an extension of my brain, a physical version of a memory map. Anything I can’t find in my stores will be in one of my many vast catalogues. Rural sheds may seem quaint but they are no longer cut off from the world. Modern distribution means I can get anything within 24 hours. My neighbours are amazed by the constant stream of delivery vans driving past.

Physically making the parts can sometimes be slow and repetitive, but the time is always well worth it. Firstly, craft skills are satisfying. I’m no great craftsman, but I get more pleasure doing neat welds with my wonderful TIG welder than I do from any computer program. Secondly I have something tangible to show for every day’s work, and this is fantastically good for morale the next day, even if the previous day’s part has to be scrapped later on. Finally, it just gives me time to puzzle out what comes next, or think up improvements to the part I’m making, or occasionally great ideas for the whole machine.

My hands on method, and ‘thing using’ in general, is so powerful, and such an innate part of ourselves it seems odd that the developed world is distancing itself from it.  Practical skills are certainly considered to be inferior to ‘intellectual’ skills, though this is simply illogical. Chambers dictionary gives the definition of intellect as: ‘the mind, in reference to its rational powers’. By this definition my activities in my workshop are certainly using my intellect. The dictionary has several definitions of an intellectual, but my favourite is ‘a person of superior intellect or enlightenment, often used to suggest doubt as to practical sagacity’. In other words an intellectual is just someone who is hopeless at anything practical.   

Francis often said ‘technology is too good for engineers’, and I sympathise. My Engineering Science degree gave me the impression that scientific analysis can be applied to every aspect of engineering and that practical intuitive design is simply outdated. There was no idea that the two might complement each other. I now see this as snobbery. My public school definitely saw engineering as a subject suitable for boys not bright enough to do pure science and I’m sure the engineering school at Cambridge was trying to prove that it could be just as academic as the other schools.  

This is nothing new. Engineers have struggled to raise their status ever since the 17th century when the word ‘engineer’ came into use to describe the people who built and operated the 18th century mine engines. James Naysmith, the 19th century engineer who invented the steam hammer wrote `the eyes and fingers - the bare fingers - are the two principle trustworthy inlets to trustworthy knowledge in all the materials and operations which the engineer has to deal with....Hence I have no faith in young engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves. Gloves, especially kid gloves, are the perfect non-conductors of technical knowledge'.  This quote has particular resonance today, when the wearing of gloves is becoming compulsory on UK building sites.

Obviously its impossible to design large scale and high tech projects using the methods I use in my shed, but my experience is that nothing is designed in this ad-hoc way any longer. It is simply considered old fashioned and inefficient. Certainly the interactive exhibits in science centres, which used to be built by trial and error, are now mostly designed on paper, and only sent out for fabrication once all the details have been agreed. Today’s exhibit designers now tend to be science communication graduates without practical skills, who regard building prototypes as too expensive. Researchers I know at my local BT Martlesham laboratory, have told me they had seen the similar changes in the way they work. BT Martlesham – a huge site – is now all software, without a single workshop. Graham, who now works with me, left his previous job, at an industrial automation company, because he was demoralised that his job had changed from ‘practical thinking’ to slavishly following drawings.  I’m sure there are areas where things are still designed in a traditional way, but companies keep quiet about it, stressing only the high tech aspects of their development process.        

Today’s engineering students not only have to put up with all the science, but also management theory, its almost as if today’s engineering institutions want to completely disown their subject. I went to see the director for education at the Academy of Engineering a few years ago. He was polite, but obviously thought I was an irrelevant eccentric for suggesting that their perspective of technology might be too narrow. 

The root of problem is that until recently there has always been an abundance of skilled workers educated with apprenticeships, who had the necessary intuitive practical skills. Most people with these skills spent their lives doing repetitive and physically exhausting tasks but a minority did the practical thinking for the ‘elite’. Every university and art college had skilled technicians who enjoyed solving problems and teaching students informally and they never expected any recognition for their work.  Every building site and factory still has skilled workers who fulfil the same role. I’m guilty myself - several things I’ve designed on CAD in the last year and sent to a local fabricator – have only worked out because Mark, their head welder, instinctively modified my impressive looking drawings to make them work, as he does with every job.

People like Mark are really bright. I used to teach people like him on an Open University course called Design and Innovation. My students were mostly practical engineers keen to get a degree. What I enjoyed most was seeing their confidence grow. Their awe of the tutors and the academic system gradually disappeared and they increasingly questioned everything they were being taught.

As long as there was an abundance of skilled artisans, no one was going to regard practical skills and practical thinking as special. But the developed world has changed. There are now far fewer apprenticeships than university places. Mass employment now comes from the service industries – catering and call centres, not from manual work. I find it easy to get help with computer problems, but really hard to find skilled people to help me make things. Until recently I thought the ending of the link between manual work and mass employment would earn practical skills new respect. Sadly the current limitless influx of skilled Eastern Europeans to the UK enables us to continue the illusion that practical skills are cheap, even if its actually further evidence of how our own skills have atrophied.

Schools and colleges are still busy getting rid of their workshops. Academic subjects are more convenient, they don't require expensive materials and equipment, or pose awkward health and safety problems, and the government is still set on sending everyone to university. Teachers are often amazed by the kids, often troublemakers, who flourish during my wife’s making workshops. Lots of bright kids are just bored by academic subjects. Most kids also now get little encouragement to make things at home so doing any practical workshop gets more and more difficult. Most kids are now hopeless at using any hand tool, even scissors.  

Accountants obviously have no feel for engineering. A few years ago they persuaded almost every company to dispose of their ‘stores’ and ‘stock’ as they were unaccountable and old fashioned. However, this made engineers much less efficient as, instead of getting parts off the shelf, it forced them to buy in everything and to wait for each part to arrive. This is seriously expensive, compared to the pathetic amounts raised from selling the stores.    

Equally journalists, critics and politicians who principally work with words, have little understanding of the nature of practical skills. During the frenzy about plumbers pay a few years ago, the media frequently mentioned that anyone could retrain to be a plumber. This was insulting to plumbers. Practical skills take many years to master. Engineers, designers and skilled workers are not usually good at championing practical skills because their talents are non-verbal. I feel vulnerable writing this, I’m much more confident making things. 

The traditional apprenticeship took five years, and was a great way of learning practical stuff. Without the industrial base Britain used to have, apprenticeships cannot practically be revived on a large scale. Fortunately it’s not the only way to learn.  I never had an apprenticeship – I was born with the ability to bodge, and my crafts skills are self taught, picking up a lot from Rex Garrod and others along the way. It was a slow process, 15 years or so before I was able to earn a living from it, but certainly possible. Other people I know had inspiring practical parents or grandparents and I’m sure there are other ways of learning I haven’t thought of. Also many of the skills are easier than they used to be, because today’s tools are both much cheaper and easier to use. In the long term I’m really optimistic,  the growing scarcity of practical skills will eventually give them increased respect and status and they will return in some new form. It was only after the masses stopped having to grow their own food in the 19th century that gardening started to become a fashionable hobby.  

It may come to nothing, but I do detect attitudes starting to change. The graphics students I talked to at the RCA in December seemed desperate to escape from their computer programs. The scientific community’s current interest in ‘physical computing’ reflects this interest. The popularity of TV programs like Scrap Heap challenge, though I’m not too keen on them myself, shows there is keen interest in practical technology. On the US west coast, people who play with technology are called tinkerers, and there the word has none of the negative, incompetent and unprofessional connotations that it has here. The West Coast tinkerers magazine called ‘Make’ is now well established with a fabulous annual ‘makers’ faire. The common theme is people playing with technology just for the fun of it. Even Microsoft has recognised its potential and has a whole (if slightly dull) pavilion.  

I’m delighted, this playing technology is very much what motivates me. When I read about the stuffy, conceptual stuff that goes on in the fine art world or the miniscule detail with which today’s fundamental science examines the world, I just think how lucky I am to be playing with technology. The potential for combining traditional engineering with today’s computers is still in its infancy.


Read Francis's complete paper

Other Reading:

'Engineering and the Mind's eye' 
by Eugene Ferguson
One of my all-time favourite books, published in 1992, long before the current vogue for 'making'. A brilliant historical perspective of engineering design, and how much its an art, not a science. It's richly illustrated, which makes its easier and more fun to read.  

'The Craftsman', 
by Richard Sennett
Like most of the books, this starts well. The first few chapter have some good insights which were new to me, for example how without thinking one gets to know exactly how hard to hit a hammer in any situation. Unfortunately Sennett is a philosopher, so as the book continues the subject gets increasingly tangled while he debates it with himself.

'The case for working with your hands, Why office work is bad for us and fixing things is good' 
by Matthew Crawford
I loved enjoyed his demolition of office work - its very entertaining and powerful stuff. He now repairs motorbikes, and obviously loves it, but I didn't find anything new in his written appreciation.

'The Mind at Work', Valuing the intelligence of the American Worker'
by Mike Rose
This starts with a great chapter about the author's mother, who was a waitress. It powerfully makes the case that being a waitress in a small town diner needs a lot of intelligence and quick thinking. He then looks at other trades, but to me his other observations are less original. 

'The Mechanically Challenged Generation'
by Cynthia Reynolds
A campus magazine article which is admirably concise.








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