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What is a Machine?

Updated on November 20, 2009

Machines in one sense are as old as the human organism; for man, when deprived of his specifically human traits, can be reduced to a machine, as Rene Descartes pointed out in the 17th century, and man's organs served as the original models for the simple tools and utensils out of which more complicated machines were constructed. In turn, the more complex automatic machines and utilities of our own day, governed by cybernetic controls - above all, the electronic computers themselves - have uncanny resemblances to human beings, in function if not in physical appearance, including the capacity to exercise a particular kind of intelligence, to record experience and even to detect and correct their own errors. In general, one may say that the machine is an instrument for isolating and greatly enlarging in durable external form special capacities that were once confined to animal organisms and subject to their limitations.

Viewed from the standpoint of technics, the machine represents the last stage of a long development, which began with the invention of simple tools- the stone to supplement the fist, the stick to extend the reach of the arm. These early adaptations may be as old at least as the discovery and preservation of fire; but the dawn period of technics probably lasted tens of thousands of years before the deliberate chipping of flint tools with sharp edges began, and possibly man's earliest lessons in standardization and repetition came through the development of language. While we lack evidence of Paleolithic language, it is plain from remains in the Aurignacian caves that man's symbolic skill in painting far exceeded his skill in shaping stone tools.

The first development of machines specially constructed to shape, move, or control the material environment came apparently in the Neolithic period; this was associated with the development of agriculture and the building of settled village communities. At this time the simple machines of classic mechanics were developed: the inclined plane, the lever, and the wheel, all of them notably of use in building. The earliest form of the wheel, the potter's wheel, and the cart wheel appeared between 3500 and 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia.

Machines As Distinguished from Tools, Utensils, and Utilities

Machines may be distinguished from tools in that the latter are relatively undifferentiated and may be used for more than one kind of operation, always under the control of the worker, whereas machines are designed to perform one particular function, with an accuracy, speed, or regularity not readily attained by the individual worker. Machines must also be distinguished from utensils and utilities, which occupy a whole realm of technology, that of the containers and transformers. The machine represents the dynamic processes, derived ultimately from such organic tools as the teeth, the hands, and the limbs, while utensils and utilities stand for the more passive, static, chemical and physiological processes, such as those of the stomach, the womb, the circulatory system, and the skin. If the machine long had a subordinate place, it was because man's first great step in controlling the environment (the development of organized agriculture and cities) was largely dependent on utilities, such as planted fields, buildings, vats, dams, reservoirs, irrigation ditches, and canals, rather than on machines.

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