Design Thinking: mechanics

don’t know that I’m cut out for this sort of work yet.

I know that this is how one begins: with pair of cardboard disks on dowels punched through the sides of a cardboard box.  When properly fixed in place, when appropriately bound to one stick yet turning on the wheel fixed to another axel… The spinning of one ought to turn the other.  And gradually, one can add other circles to each dowel, to each axle, and make other things happen, especially as the circles change from circles to eggs, from eggs to flattened nautilus shells, from nautilus shells to true cogs, with square teeth that bite each other.  Thus are counterweights hauled up, that, as they fall, keep the machine running.

That’s what ought to happen.

Right now, it does nothing. Video here:

Let’s be honest.  It may take all summer before these parts turn, one in relationship with the other.  They may never turn, actually.  Or turn for three minutes and stop.

For now, let’s concentrate on assembly, and architecture.  The back flaps of the box must come off, and they must be so pared  down that they become mere triangles.   Then all the movng parts have enough room to move.  

The questions begin arising immediately.

Maybe the disk on the horizontal axle isn’t thick enough to turn the horizontal circle on the vertical axle.  Double that circle’s thickness, maybe?  Maybe use some tape to fix the locations of the turning wheels on their axles.  How about taping the horizontal circle at the bottom end of the vertical axle?  And some washers, or thickenings, not sure what they’re called yet—arbors? bearings? No, a bearing is something that makes an axle turn more smoothly. Bushings!  A bushing is a thickening or strengthening of a specific place, so that a part moves along a more specific axis.

I had a choice with my time this summer: I could work on learning electronics, and get a much better feel for how diodes connect with switches, how LEDs and LCDs connect with capacitors and ICs and pressure-sensitive switches.  I could have spent my summer building robots.  I would have learned a lot. There’s a good deal of great material for teaching that kind of thing.  I’d be much better prepared to teach robotics, which is what parents and maybe some colleagues would like me to teach next fall.


But no.  Let’s face it, I’m unlikely ever to build the Antikythera Mechanism.  And, while I’m planning on spending some of my time this summer replicating a couple of Clayton Boyer machines, piece by patient piece…. that’s not how you learn.  I can replicate someone else’s parts (badly, judging from my sewing skills, alas!) And yes, I’m going to spend some time with electronics this summer—I can hardly avoid it, given how much attention it needs in schools.

But mechanics:  the interplay of levers and arbors and gears. The way cogs bite each other, and then back off.  The way pieces turn in precise units of degrees, moving and stopping according to the demands of the gears and axles that engaged them.

No, I’m never going to build the Antikythera Mechanism.  But there’s value in a cardboard machine, even one as crude as this one is currently turning out to be.  It doesn’t even work yet, and I’m showing it to you.

Why? Why see this now?

Because this is the path we didn’t take, and that’s now coming back to haunt us in Steampunk fashion and tastes.  This is the road we didn’t travel when we bought into a taste for sleek black plastic and computers… and which is now starting to look a little scratched and tarted up, and not as useful as we once thought.

It’s possible to invoke Robert Frost.

No, not the Road Less Traveled.  I was thinking more along the lines of Mending Wall: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

In his column tonight, “The Delusion of Control“, John Michael Greer opines that part of the reason that American politics has gone so far off the map, and American diplomacy does such a poor job of actually negotiating, is that we’ve gotten rather used to dealing with machines. Machines don’t learn.  They’ve had the learning disassembled from them, in exactly the way that life hasn’t.  Life, says Greer, keeps evolving and learning from prior experiences. When you batter and bruise an economy long enough, sooner or later its inhabitants fight back. A machine, you just keep pressing the button and product falls out of it, exactly the same size and shape as the thing it made just before.

But there’s something about a wall, that something else wants it down.  The machine can’t learn, but I can.  I can build a machine that teaches me how machines are made, and from that learn something about how machines respond differently than human beings, and natural processes, and software, and countries.  All the electronics things I’ve seen so far are projects: buy this parts list, assemble it exactly this way, test it after each step; if this doesn’t work, then undo that work, and go back a step; replace broken parts with exactly the same part.  It’s regimented, it’s turning the learner into a machine: build this, this way, enough times and maybe an electrical engineer will pop out.

But in truth, it doesn’t work that way.  We added electricity to mechanical devices that already existed, first.  This side of the wall is all apple orchard—useful, and orderly, of geometry and carefully-accumulated truths.  The pine-tree side of the wall is all mysterious and secret, of spacious realms under the trees and light shining through dappled branches… and there, I have no idea how long it will be before I find my way home.  I feel like I could get lost in those woods until suppertime on the first night of school, and get little accomplished besides solder vapor in my lungs.  I could get lost out there.

And so I plan on working in this orchard, and maybe, toward the end, begin breaking down the wall that divides mechanics from electronics.  An LED or too wouldn’t be horrible, right?  But the main thing is how to generate mechanical motion.  That’s the goal, not because there’s an easy project path to my success, but because there isn’t.

I’ll have to, of course.  IF the machine doesn’t do something, even something as silly as run a toy merry-go-round, it will be hard to get kids to buy into the idea that this is an important skill.  Yet the skill that I want them to learn has nothing to do with mechanics, really.

It has everything to do with the process of tinkering, of learning.  That’s what I intend to teach; that’s what I hope they learn, when the time comes for them to build their own machines.


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