Esthetic Appreciation of Machinery

On my walk this morning, something popped into my mind that I have thought about occasionally, so I decided to write about the topic today.  The title of the post was one I struggled with, but “Esthetic Appreciation of Machinery” sort of sums up my notion.

I readily admit having such an esthetic, and find myself sometimes bothered by the actions, or inactions, of those who do not; to wit, those who treat their vehicles (or other machinery, even gadgets) so “uncaringly,” so cavalier, not maintaining, not cleaning and generally treating the “thing” like a “thing.”  When I look at a vehicle, I see the millions and millions of hours it took to design it, and its predecessors, and build it and all its variations.  Surely that human effort should be in some way honored, at least by caring for the car or truck better than most car owners do.  How readily we take for granted all these marvelous creations that make our society so much easier to live in than fifty years ago.  Whether its highways, bridges, cell phones, or cars or a billion other “things,” we seem to just have not sense of appreciation for these “things” that just become part of our daily landscape.  This offends my engineering esthetic.

I know this is difficult to grasp, and as a Buddhist I don’t want to leave the impression I am grasping at material stuff, as in recent years I have learned not to.  We all have probably seen trucks or trains carrying crushed cars to be recycled for their metallic content, usually dumped the electric arc furnace at a steel plant, so this confirms that vehicles are in fact, “things.”  When I observe recycling of cars I think of it as like any organic matter, including the human body, being converted back into its original ingredients, from which the very universe is composed, but whether its people or cars, while they “exist” in this perceived reality, should we not show respect for the mind energy and labor energy that went into their creation?  I think so.

Let me remind my readers that I am an engineer, although a retired one.  But  once you “go engineer,” you are one for life I can assure you.  So I have a love for the workings of “things,” although I am an electrical engineer and the things we EE’s work with may be static/passive, or dynamic machinery such as motors.  My love for “what’s going on inside this thing”, I was born with it seems, but the appreciation for the “thing” I believe is a developed or learned sense, just like one’s appreciation of art, or music.

When I was a boy I, like many future engineers or “mechanics,” was always tearing apart any mechanical thing that I could find the right tool to undo, opening its secrets of operation.  At age 13 I bought my first powered lawn mower to earn money mowing yards.  It was what is called a two-cycle engine, spewed smoke like a sick diesel truck, but it was my engine, and I loved tearing it apart to clean it and tune it up.  No one taught me to do this, it was by just by doing it.  During my early teen years I had some neighbor boys who parents would give us a lot of slack on tearing into engines, big car engines, racing boat engines, and we boys were into powered model cars and airplanes as well.  As any mechanical engineer or mechanic will vouch, just to observe how the “guts” of an engine all fit together and serve mutual, integrative purpose, is a marvelous thing to witness.  Touching, handling, feeling the finely machined steel, in spite of the oil or grime, is to many people, a connecting, revelatory experience, similar to a basketball player handling the ball, the ball becomes like the key to opening up a large slice of the player’s psyche.

I have to be honest however, as although when a kid and later a young adult, I enjoyed working on engines, I gravitated to designing “things,” in my case, electrical power systems that connected a lot of “things” together, and given that most of these when operating are electrified and dangerous, there is not much “touchy-feely” one can do, without the proper precautions and procedures; otherwise one gets zapped and toasted

The car in the photo above is my very first new car.  My father bought it for me and we picked it up right after my receiving my 2nd Lieutenant bars at UT Austin, May, 1969.  It was an Opel Kadett Rallye.  He made the down payment, and then I picked up the payments when my military checks began to arrive.  I hadn’t had the car but a year or so, when I discovered the same manufacturer had just come out with a sports car, the Opel GT, and as a young military officer, I just had to have one.  That car was frankly one of the best I ever owned, and over my life I was fortunate to own a number of new cars.  I loved the headlights on the GT, as there were turned into the car when unused, then when you needed them, there was a lever right next to the shift stick, that you pushed forward and the headlights rotated out to shine.  Very cool.  Very mechanical.  And, it would hug the curves and hills going 110mph mile after mile.  Hit my esthetic dead on.  The car had a straight, 4-cylinder engine, and there was tons of room under the hood to get to the spark plugs and everything.  I worked on the engine to do minor things, like changing plugs, for several years until I could one day I could afford to trade it on a new car.  Over the years I loved the changes in technology, but golly-gee, that little GT was just the bomb.  I still miss it.  But I also miss my Ford Taurus, a 2014 model, one of the last of the big Ford sedans.  I miss it, but then I do not, as you see I have adapted to a life without a car, which is not a very easy thing to do when you live in Texas.  So now I Lyft or Uber, but also have found that I don’t really need to move around much needing a car, as just having a car compels unnecessary motion I have learned.  So now I walk a lot more and enjoy it immensely.

My readers also know of my fascination with futurism, especially AI (artificial intelligence).  So I wonder as cars become essentially autonomous, will we humans collectively become totally detached from any appreciation of these vehicles?  And, given their complexity, will it not require robots and androids to work on them, totally replacing our corner grease-monkey businesses?  It seems so, sadly.

Many of you will understand my appreciation for “things,” but for those who continue to use your car like a garbage can, oh my, get some help!


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