Tinkering with Old Technology

As technology evolves and its inner workings increasingly disappear from view, replaced with solid-state parts hidden by glass, aluminium and plastic, our understanding of what makes the world operate is similarly impeded. When machinery from just a few decades ago is viewed a world of moving parts, linkages, cogs and levers is revealed. These mechanical objects contain an inherent beauty and inspire curiosity in ways that modern devices with their pristine surfaces and simplified design language do not. Opportunities to explore devices from the past open our eyes and lead us to new questions of how our devices function, how machines do the jobs we need them to do and how engineers solve problems.

I visited a museum of such devices recently. A small museum of carefully and lovingly curated items collected by a small group of engineers, now retired. It is an important collection that reveals how the technology from which our modern devices have evolved. It shows an evolutionary journey from typewriters to mainframe computers and on to devices that resemble the computers we use today. It includes examples of different engine types, milling equipment and pieces of equipment barely recognisable today that were once the very cutting edge. There are tools and instruments for measuring, samples of materials, sets of paper tape codes for early CNC (computer numerical control) machines and an array of storage mediums all of which have been eclipsed in capacity. Each item reveals its inner workings and inspires questions and inquiries as to what purpose it served and how it functioned. The beauty of each piece, its design aesthetic and the attention to detail shown in every part reveals an artistry and craftsmanship that seems to be lacking in modern items designed to be hidden from view. Hours if not days could be spent exploring and gathering questions.

Beyond the mechanisms are the people behind this collection; the human face of our technical history. These are the engineers who made the machines on display, who used them in their daily lives and kept them functioning. They have a collective wisdom that is of great value but above all else they are the living, breathing embodiment of the inquisitive minds we hope our students will aspire to be. They describe themselves as ‘problem solver’, as engineers and mathematicians. They use their knowledge of science to make sense of the challenges they face, they use mathematics as a tool and they collaboratively design new ways of solving problems. Now in their retirement years they continue to learn and as they do so they are keen to share their wisdom with a new generation.

Tinkering is in their nature but one has to wonder if today’s children have the same opportunities to tinker that generations past did. I remember fondly taking apart items of technology to see what was inside. My grandmother once allowed me to disassemble her old television. I learned many lessons from this including the need to be very clear in communicating that it is unlikely that the device will ever work again. I did the same with lawnmowers, music boxes, radios, out board motors and countless toys of varying forms. In some cases they went back together again, in other cases they donated their parts to new devices. I recall working with a group of friends to repair the school tractor.  The joy we shared when it started up for the first time combined with the sudden realisation that the noise it made could not be hidden from the teachers who had not given us permission for this lunchtime activity. Thinking back now I am almost certain they knew we were toiling away every lunchtime and were quite happy to pretend not to know; after all we did fix the tractor for free.

The opportunities we have to tinker today are perhaps less than they once were. Devices are designed to hide their parts. Car engines are a good case in point. Open the bonnet on any modern car and where you once saw a collection of pipes, belts, chains and linkages today you see a plastic cover hiding the real working from view. Electronics are held together with glue and tamper proof screws. Toys are tightly sealed to ensure small parts never get into the hands or mouths of young users. When the covers are stripped away and the insides laid bare, most of our technology is seen to be driven by ubiquitous and almost unfathomable green boards with tiny plastic moldings covering computer chips. The magic of a world of tiny parts moving in mechanical unison is lacking and so to is the curiosity that such movement inspires.

The maker movement has a great opportunity to reignite the sense of curiosity that children once had fuelled by their tinkering journeys. With making comes opportunities to look beyond the plastic covers, to use tools and machines to solve problems we seek and wish to solve. Connecting to the machines of the past and bringing these items into our MakerSpaces is one way to inspire curiosity. If our students can see how engineers once solved problems with mechanical devices, they can begin to build an understanding of how our modern devices solve similar problems in new ways. Beyond the tinkering and the making opportunities to explore technology that proudly refuses to hide its bits allows heightened levels of inquiry. Seeing the parts of a machine move and mesh together, seeing how a force is transferred from one object to another, from one form of energy to another is a catalyst for rich and meaningful exploration. If we want our students to develop inquisitive dispositions this is a great way to do it.

At the end of the visit time was given to allow the group of educators present to share their reflections with the engineers responsible for this amazing collection. We had all been inspired by the devices we had seen and our initial reflections were framed as responses to this. As we talked it became clear that the most valuable resource available were the people. This small group of passionate engineers who had devoted their lives to problem finding and solving had a wealth of experiences to share. Their experience with the processes of problem finding, ideation, prototyping, testing, modifying and finally arriving at a workable and viable solution is profoundly valuable beyond the lessons in history they can share. These men are the experts in the STEAM disciplines we need to connect with.

By Nigel Coutts