I have a confession. As much as I love computers and enjoy working with them, I have a deeper love and respect for mechanical things.
Let me explain. The digital watch revolutionized the watch industry. It brought cheap accurate timekeeping to the masses, a very good thing. But, for sheer elegance, nothing beats a mechanical watch. Mechanical watches keep time with nothing more than the power of a spring. They are built by master craftsmen who build their own tools. Jewels are used as bearings because they have less friction. The resulting picture of gears, jewels, and springs is a complex work of mechanical art. That’s much more impressive to me than a computer chip powered by a battery.
Cars fit this bill, too. Older cars, especially. New cars are more like computers than not, but older cars, especially ones with carburetors, are again just very complex mechanical things. Watching how a simpler older car pulls air and fuel into the carburetor to mix it just right before sending it down to the cylinders, without a computer to tell it what to do, is pretty amazing,
I have a pipe bender that uses a standard air compressor to charge a hydraulic pump to bend pipe. I love that thing. I even named him. He’s helped me build 9 roll cages for race cars.
Even a finely built SnapOn ratchet wrench will make me smile most days. The heft and smooth feel of the tool makes me smile. It just feels right in your hand. Especially when compared to a cheaper tool.
Why we love mechanical things
So what is it about this simplicity of mechanics that makes me so happy? It’s actually a bit silly. My internal reasoning is that the mechanical items represent the best of the human spirit before computers came into being. The silly part is that computers are, in essence, nothing more than machines themselves, they’re just digital instead of analog. If the pure mechanics of a complex machine impress me, the complexity of a computer should impress me just as much. And they do, don’t get me wrong. They just don’t make me smile.
Mechanical things are my nature. When I’m having a bad day or I’m stressed out, grabbing something mechanical makes me better. Using a simple tool releases stress. It allows me to fix something. Writing a piece of code that works is rewarding, but somehow, not in the same way, it’s not physical. There’s stress release in physical work.
I also love the approachability of mechanical things. I don’t usually need a tutorial for using a tool. Even the brake caliper compressor I used a few weekends ago, I was able to figure out without needing to dig for anything in the way of instructions. Which is good, because it didn’t come with any, which added to my sense of accomplishment. My wife tells me that must be a guy thing. She said it, not me, so I’m not the sexist here, she is.
Then there’s the physical beauty of mechanical things. Take a look at an old typewriter vs a computer. Which simply looks more interesting? Again, look at the back of most mechanical watches and see the movement inside the case, it’s elegant. A battery sitting on top of a circuit does not have the same elegance.
Sometimes older is just better
I play harmonica, or at least I used to, and I played in a style that was born in the 40s and 50s. To emulate that sound, one needs to play similar equipment that was used during that era. For whatever reason, this is one area where digital cannot outperform analog. Amplifiers that have circuit boards and transistors do not sound as good as hand-wired tube amps. It’s in the way distortion happens. Digital processes always happen at the same point. With a tube, distortion happens following a sine wave, so it gets more distorted as the tube gets warmer, but it follows a smooth path. The result is a smoother sounding result. The digital versions sound tinny and thin.
I’ve even started to get back to reading physical books. Years ago, I moved over to ebooks due to the number of books I could carry with me when I traveled. It was much more convenient to have an iPad than a physical book. I try to travel as light as I can, and my book choice used to be limited by the size of the book. No more. But recently, after finding some insanely cheap deals at Half Price Books, I read a physical book again. And a big one. A Dashiell Hammett collection of four novels and it’s a hardback to boot.
I enjoyed it. It’s funny because I struggled with the size of the book, and holding it right while trying to balance the book on my chest, but I still enjoyed reading the physical pages more than I do on my iPad. Now, with all the research about screens keeping you awake all night, etc., I have an excuse to read books again. I’m currently looking at having some really nice leather-bound versions made of my favorite books. The ones I know I will re-read over the next several decades. Something to make that experience even more special.
At the end of the day, this is just a silly homage to days gone by. I always lament changes, even when they are for the better. I think my love of mechanical things is just a longing for a more simple time, a time when my life wasn’t so hectic and packed with things to do and things to learn.
It seems the more I push myself to learn technology (because make no mistake, I’m a technologist) the more I long for mechanical things. It’s some sort of strange balancing act my psyche is trying to achieve, and I’m going to let it happen if I can.
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