How things work - Dealing with technology in our lives.

We live in a technological World.

I was born into a house that had electric lights and three stand-alone electrical appliances (one convector heater, one immersion water heater and one electric iron). There was also one electronic item: the much loved wireless set. And that was the extent of our technology. Of course we acquired more and more technology as time went on, as did everyone else, as the World became ever more technological.

At first, it was possible to understand not only what technology could do, but also how it worked. Everything was repairable, to component level. But gradually this began to slip away. Technology became ever more powerful and useful but less and less understandable. This article looks at our increasing alienation from the very things we depend on merely to live 'normal' lives.

The Electric Train Set, Christmas 1959

It was made by Tri-Ang and comprised one 00-gauge R52 steam locomotive, two box cars, a brake van and an oval of track. It was the best Christmas present I ever received. I had just turned seven and though I had asked for an electric train set on the two previous Christmases, my parents (or was it Santa?) must have decided I was at last old enough to be trusted to take care of such an expensive toy. They needn't have worried. I became almost fanatical in my care of this marvel, though not necessarily in the way my parents would have expected.

tri-ang r52 jinty 0-6-0 locomotive
tri-ang r52 jinty 0-6-0 locomotive | Source

R52 'Jinty' 0-6-0 locomotive

It was black, with a British Railways transfer on each side. couplings front and rear, boiler, funnel, steam valves, footplate, fixed tender with plastic coal - everything it needed to be thoroughly convincing. It could run forwards or backwards, from the slowest crawl to such a respectable speed that the wheels became a blur. It was, in every way, perfect.

0-6-0 locomotive chassis
0-6-0 locomotive chassis | Source

Under the hood

However, it didn't take me long to find out that by undoing the retaining screw (cleverly concealed inside the funnel) the body could be lifted off, to reveal the chassis, complete with electric motor and gearing to drive the wheels. This set me off on a mission of discovery that was to shape my whole life. The mechanics was the easy part. I learned how the worm gear coupled the motor armature to the middle wheel axle, and how the coupling rods caused the front and rear axles to rotate in sync. I didn't see why this was necessary, and removed the coupling rods. The resulting wheel-spin on starting taught me something about friction, though I couldn't have put it into words. The rods went back on.

I learned that the motor had a magnet and that the little coils on the armature also worked as magnets and this caused the armature to spin. I didn't fully understand how the commutator worked, but I could see it was some kind of switch. Eight years later, when we learned about electric motors in Physics class, it wasn't news to me. I'd known it for years.

Of course, there are always levels of understanding. School Physics didn't cover Maxwell's Equations. That came later, at University. But Michael Faraday managed to invent electric motors and generators before James Clerk Maxwell came along to explain how Electromagnetism really works, which shows that a total understanding isn't always necessary or even possible. There is such a thing as useful, practical knowledge.

my philco people's set, 1933, still working
my philco people's set, 1933, still working | Source
every component counts
every component counts | Source

After the trains - Radio

When I'd grown out of electric trains (though I still like to see a good layout!) I became fascinated by radio. I would buy old valve (tube) wireless sets from jumble sales, often for a few shillings and take them home to mend and tune up. In the sixties, people were replacing these old wireless sets with the new transistor radios which were far smaller and cheaper to run.

Unlike an electric train, you can't learn how a wireless works by inspection alone. Resistors, capacitors and valves don't yield their secrets as easily as magnets do. But the local library was full of books and there were these great periodicals, Practical Wireless and Practical Electronics. I soon learned to read circuit diagrams almost like stories, because they are stories - detailed stories of how a tiny received radio signal is amplified, changed in frequency, demodulated to recover the original studio sound, which is further amplified and reproduced on the loudspeaker. 'Nation shall speak peace unto nation', the motto of the BBC. Was there ever a greater invention than radio?

Then it all changed

Until the mid-70s, it really was possible to have a complete understanding of technology. It was also very satisfying. In principle at least, everything was repairable, by isolating and replacing the faulty component. But not any more. Modern technology is infinitely more complex than could have been imagined a mere forty years ago. A 1970s transistor radio typically contained six transistors. A modern microprocessor chip can contain more than one billion transistors. We may 'understand' it in terms of functional blocks or processes but absolutely not at the component level. Also, many devices are controlled by software or firmware where the source code is not made available (even if it were humanly decipherable).

Please don't take from this that I am opposed to modern technology. I use it all the time. Without it, you wouldn't be reading this article.

But I have reservations about the health of a society where nobody really understands the technologies we all rely on for our day to day business. Maybe it doesn't matter for us oldies. At least we know what we don't know. We can recognise the point at which it all started to slip away. But how does it feel to be 25 years old and to know that you've never understood the inner workings of your world, except superficially, and never will? I'm not sure I'd like to be there.

Thank you for reading.

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Comments 38 comments

jainismus profile image

jainismus 5 years ago from Pune, India

We do not need to know everything in detail, but it is beneficial to know basic things about lot of things.

Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 5 years ago from SE MA

Perhaps in years to come "black boxes" that can communicate with one another to be programmed will become the "simple" technology. You didn't understand the technology that went into winding that armature or manufacturing the vacuum tubes, and didn't need to. Maybe software is the future of "knowing how it works".

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

jainismus - certainly we can't know everything in detail, but it is worrying when we lose sight of the fundamentals.

Pcunix - I rewound several armatures in my time, and while I obviously couldn't manufacture a vacuum tube in my attic, I did understand the process involved. I see quite a lot of people alienated by high technology. Time will tell if this matters or not.

Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 5 years ago from SE MA

Well, I meant the technology of its manufacture, not understanding the process, but yes, I agree that it does matter and there is far too much ignorance today.

kevins blog52 profile image

kevins blog52 5 years ago from southern Indiana

Great read Paraglider, that was a interesting read. I voted you up and interesting.

Steve LePoidevin profile image

Steve LePoidevin 5 years ago from Thailand

Fun read. I, too, remember pulling that screw off my train engine! Unlike you, I just put it back together :). I handed down my scooter to my brother and the next thing I knew, he had it in pieces on the basement floor. He always wanted to know how things worked, I just wanted to use them! I would rather just use Photoshop than know how the program is written. I understand the basic fundamentals of hardware and software and that's good enough for me!

LiamBean profile image

LiamBean 5 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

My experience in technology somewhat mirror your own. Once I got through taking apart and analyzing my toys it was on to my dad's power tools.

I do agree that for such a technological society too few of us know even the most basic information about our devices. Over time, as gadgets have become more complex, I have also become guilty of this.

Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 5 years ago from India

Very thought-provoking! I had a brother who took everything in the house apart - and put it back probably better than it was before! I guess in today's disposable culture, the 'how' has lost its magic. It's how much more each new model offers that is important. Maybe in the frenetic, fast-paced now, there's no time to stop and wonder why or how!

JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Paraglider, you are so right that we all should at least know the basics of how things work. If we did, we might be far less willing to simply toss an item in the bin and buy a replacement. I know from exploring the inner workings of several computer printers that the part that gets the most wear is made of plastic while every other moving part is metal. Definitely planned obsolescence. And I won't ever be dismantling the engine of my car, but do think it's important to know how one works to prevent an unscrupulous mechanic taking advantage when it only needs a minor repair and not the major overhaul he'd like to charge me for.

My son, btw, was born knowing how to take things apart and put them back together. I once left him in his play pen and he didn't want to be in it but was still too small to climb over the side. I'd been fixing a faulty doorknob in that room and had inadvertently left a screwdriver where he could reach it. He simply dismantled a corner of the play pen and walked into the kitchen, quite proud of himself for doing so! We were quite careful never to leave tools lying around after that!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Pcunix - I think that because it is impossible now to understand all of it there's a tendency to throw up the hands and give up on the whole idea of understanding it.

Kevin - thanks for the vote of confidence :)

Steve - Even with scooters and bicycles, knowing how they work can save a lot of money in repairs sometimes!

LiamBean - it's the younger folk who have never got to grips with technology that I worry about. We've just decided it's OK to let go a bit.

Shalini - agree, but the problem is that our world is being designed for us, and it certainly isn't consumer led.

JamaGenee - built in obsolescence is horrible. That 1933 wireless in the picture may have needed a couple of replacement valves in its time, but it was built to last 80 years at least!

Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 5 years ago from SE MA

Yeah, but that's why I brought up software. Let me try it from another tack:

You don't understand how a rotating electric current produces a magnetic field. I say that because nobody really does - you might be able to predict behavior, but we don't really understand how magnetism gravity and everything else arises from physics.

But you can USE that field without understanding it. In the same way, if you have software black boxes, you can use them without understanding how they work. If we progress to the point where everything can talk to everything, people can learn the software to build things that they may not understand at the component level, but will understand as a system. What I'm saying is that a new age of "back yard mechanic" may be right around the corner.

amillar profile image

amillar 5 years ago from Scotland, UK

I used to get in about the guts of things too paraglider. I'd muck about with crocodile clips etc to see what would happen, and wire up homemade foot pedals to things like sequencers and drum machines. A complete amateur, but I don't remember having any great disasters.

But it's another one of these things I don't do anymore, which is fortunate because, as you say here, today's semiconductors etc would make it impossible.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Pcunix - that has always been true. Our explanations have always been mathematical models of various levels of sophistication. The models describe; they don't 'explain'. In that respect, nobody really understands the 'how' of things. You may be right about the next phase. Let's wait and see.

amillar - it's a good thing to have done, though. Trial and error was in at the start of most great inventions.

LiamBean profile image

LiamBean 5 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

Paraglider and Pcunix: Actually there is a cadre of loosely organized people who disassemble and explain the repair of modern devices. When the iPad and iPad 2 came out they had someone one line to buy both. Within six hours of release they had posted a step by step tear down guide and video explaining the components and "how-tos" to repair. As a group they feel that everyone should know how to perform their own repairs.

They are called and they are a group of younger, technically savvy people.

Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 5 years ago from SE MA

Yes, I know about them. Good stuff.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

LiamBean - there are people all over the growing economies, India, China et al who do exactly that, often with a view to manufacturing cheap copies. But even they wouldn't claim to understand to component level how things work, unless we extend 'component' to mean 'large-scale integrated pre-programmed device'.

Our societies are very dependent on the existence of these devices. If their production stopped, we couldn't start making our own in the attic, the way we could 100 years ago with bicycles and primitive cars.

missingyou profile image

missingyou 5 years ago from Canada

Hello paraglider. I enjoyed your cautionary tale. What fun you had as a child with the trains and radios. I grew up with three brothers, so there was a lot of this kind stuff going on around me, but girl 'toys' dolls and tea sets were not very challenging. Way later I learned how things worked as they broke down, and out of necessity I had to figure out how to fix. I've often wished I had learned even rudimentary carpentry skills.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

missingyou - I'm sure the important thing is to start young, with toys like Meccano or even lego, though that's a definite step down. Thanks for the read :)

LiamBean profile image

LiamBean 5 years ago from Los Angeles, Calilfornia

Paraglider: Now I understand what you are getting at. Even the people who create the chips that power everything do not fully understand their inner workings. If they did, they could build circuits that used less power and generated less heat. No individual or even a small team of people could create these devices without massive amounts of capital and equipment. In other words, an individual is not capable of creating these devices on their own.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Yes, that's exactly right. In fact the devices are largely designed by other devices, not consciously of course, but still we are in uncharted waters. Interesting times!

quicksand profile image

quicksand 4 years ago

Hi Paraglider, it's really fun going back to the past! I remember learning about grid valves, cathode ray oscilloscopes, and those experiments with OC72 transistors, germanium diodes, .0005µF tuning condensers ... wow! I even took the trouble to memorize how to read the color codes in resistors!

There were some great books written by ... was it Simms? He was an AMIEE, AMIMechE, and more. His books taught me much about electricity and magnetism and they were ideal for hobbyists.

Lol! Those were the days!

Great article indeed. Cheers!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi quicksand - Simms wrote in some of the magazines too: Practical Wireless, Practical Electronics, maybe Wireless World. I even have a booklet on building simple radio receivers by a then unknown chap called Clive Sinclair! I think that type of knowledge was very satisfying to master.

Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

Ow, wow, Simms.. that brings back memories!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

And the Babani Press (and Focal Press for photography). Very affordable technical booklets.

quicksand profile image

quicksand 4 years ago

I have come across a couple of books by Sinclair too ... now that you've mentioned him, I do remember. Sinclair was also the name of a brand of electronic items during the transistor era.

Well those books were written with great care and seriousness with the sole intent of making the reader understand the concepts. Nowadays things are so very different.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Yes, Clive Sinclair (now Sir Clive) became an entrepreneur in consumer electronics, but he always brought devices to market too early. Great ideas, but under-researched. Let's see, the micromatic (smallest available radio), the programmable calculator, the C5 (electric car) etc..

And Yes, on Babani and Focal Press. The books were wholly factual and printed as cheaply as possible to be accessible to hobbyists of all ages. Truly altruistic publishing. I still have quite a few on my bookshelves.

aslanlight profile image

aslanlight 4 years ago from England

I've developed a passion for trying to get off the grid as much as I can. I have a hand crank washing machine, wind up LED lantern, wind up clock and my friend recently gave me a hand crank food processor.

I think we need people of your calibre to help the human race to survive when we've used up all the oil but preferably before then.

I got rid of my fridge and freezer. Apparently a UK university is working on the concept of fridges worked by magnetism. I'd like to replace everything in my life with things that don't need electricity. Windpower? I live in a very high up windy place but domestic turbines are still expensive.

I'm doing lots of things to reduce my electricity use. Greenhouse heaters, woollen, silk clothing and bedding, I pay for green energy despite not much money. I could go on all day but I'm still on the damn grid!

Any ideas for an untechnical person like me?

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

I'd have thought a hand crank washing machine would also provide pretty good exercise! When I was very young, the only electrical appliances in the house were lights and a wireless set. Mum cooked on gas which came from a local gas works using locally mined coal. Hot water was from the back boiler in the fireplace. No wait, there was also an immersion heater for the summer when we didn't light a fire.

Solar panels are worth considering if you have a suitable roof space, and I'm sure you've already addressed loft and cavity wall insulation, draft proofing, double glazing etc.

Suitable cold weather clothes (and bedding) can go a long way to reduce fuel bills and actually so can diet. People used to understand better the difference between winter food and summer food. Another thing that helps, if your work allows it, is to follow the sun, i.e. get up at sunrise and retire soon after sunset. We're not meant to be night owls. Owls have night vision. We don't!

But it sounds to me you're doing all the right things already. Thanks for the read :)

tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 4 years ago from California

Always want to understand how things work, but the plethora of talented engineers in my family run circles around me. Have been on a preparedness kick today; strongly believe you need to understand some things about technology in order to face challenges during emergencies and disasters. The wheel,the lever and fire are technology. Concerning children today don't realize there is low tech.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

I agree. Low tech is good enough to build a house, keep it warm in winter, cool in summer and dry in the rain. Software isn't the only game in town!

robie2 profile image

robie2 4 years ago from Central New Jersey

this was a great read, Paraglider, don't know how I missed it and I love the photos of the model trains. I was never interested in such things as a child-- being a girl growing up in a very gender defined era, I was more into dolls and playing dress up, but I do remember in the early '70's that my then three year old son, quite spontaneously took apart an alarm clock-- problem was he didn't know how to put it back together again and neither did I. My reaction was annoyance, however my husband was delighted and thus began years of the two of them taking things apart and putting them back together. That child is today a database architect and super geeky techie. Go figure.

Why your hub made me think of that story and why I felt the need to leave it as a comment, I do not know-- just my eccentric thought patterns I guess :-) I don't think society is coming apart-- I just think the nature of boytoys has changed over the years but the nature of how people learn stuff one step at a time has not. Loved reading your thoughts as always, Paraglider. Good to see you and glad I stopped by.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Robie - I think some people, like your son, just have it in the bones, the need to find out how things are put together and it's certainly to be encouraged. The reason I've not been 'here' so much recently is that I've been writing hundreds of pages on how to assemble a modern TV station. In six months time, I'll know if I've got it right, when it's finally built! It's going to be a busy summer :)

vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 4 years ago from Nashville Tn.

Learning a little about how things work always fascinated me. I enjoy the "Discovery Channel" on tv as I am able to satisfy some of my curiosity about how things work.

Love hearing about your childhood with trains and radios. I wish I were more intelligent and understood the higher theories of mechanics and technology. Oh well - the piano and human voice will have to do for now:) Voted up and across and sharing.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 4 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

I'd say there's enough subtlety in the piano and the human voice for a lifetime's learning! Thanks for the visit.

timorous profile image

timorous 4 years ago from Me to You

I believe it was Albert Einstein who postulated: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler"...or something like that. He was absolutely right. The more complexity you bring to something, the more there is to go wrong at some point.

It's true, you needn't understand everything in detail. However, a basic understanding and relating of concepts will stand you in good stead. It's the relating of things that's important. Nothing works in isolation...everything has an integral use in a larger context. No invention is totally without precedence..the process is evolutionary, more often than not.

I think you may have inspired my next hub..about these 'relationships', technological and otherwise.

J - R - Fr13m9n profile image

J - R - Fr13m9n 3 years ago from Morris County, New Jersey

Very simply worded. There are techies out there who only write in Technicalise and not understandable English. The hub was also interesting. Nice picture of a toy train.

annart profile image

annart 16 months ago from SW England

I do so agree with you! I'm no techie but I do understand much of what you said about trains, wirelesses etc (my Dad had a passion for all such things and took them apart, made our first tv - with a green screen! - and all sorts). It's comforting to know how things like that work, that one can take them apart, then put them back together; I can't but at least I know it's possible!

Funny about your 1959 Christmas train set; I had one too and instantly went up in the respect of my two male cousins. I wasn't too bad for a girl if I had a train set!

I suppose our throw-away society doesn't think about the need to know how things are made; we'll just go out and buy another. What happens when the technology breaks down completely?!

This is such a well written and engaging hub.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 16 months ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Ann - thank you for commenting. Our technology advances far faster than our psychology, which maybe explains much of the alienation. It's still a fascinating field of study, even if not always edifying.

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