TECHNOLOGY IS WHAT MAKES US HUMAN
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Francis's complete paper
'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.
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.
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.
Mechanically Challenged Generation'
by Cynthia Reynolds
A campus magazine article which is admirably concise. http://oncampus.macleans.ca/education/2011/08/29/the-mechanically-challenged-generation/