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.
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.
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.
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.