The other day, my son disassembled an LED flashlight to see how it works. He rummaged through the house looking for the right size screwdriver, struggled to remove the miniature screws; and eventually I overheard his disappointment from the other room: “Hey! There’s nothing in here that shows how it works- you can’t see the electricity.” I chuckled because I remember taking things apart as a boy and occasionally having the same feeling of disappointment when I’d disassemble something only to find a circuit board. I also felt this sentiment recently, when my inkjet printer went on the fritz.
Electrical circuits and digital technology provide us many amazing things, but much of electrical and digital technology is inherently hidden. I believe this leaves many of us feeling alienated from the technology. When I lived in Europe, one of my favorite excursions was a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London - for an exhibit featuring Victorian era technology; and I enjoyed the Greenwich museum of early clocks for all the same reasons. I recall being fascinated by the detailed resolution of steam engines, complex analogue machines, and the first clock prototypes. I felt profound admiration for the engineers who developed this early technology which exposed so many beautiful moving parts; technology that relied on gears, pistons, hinges, and pendulums - technology that was visible, comprehensible, and transparent.
There is no arguing that we have moved past Victorian era technology, but a part of me is drawn to technology that relies on visible moving parts. It’s difficult to say why I love it so much; perhaps it’s the balance of simplicity and complexity that is required to make things with moving parts work. Perhaps it’s because it makes me feel a deeper connectivity to the history of humans making things. Perhaps it is that ephemeral moment when something with moving parts changes position. Or maybe it’s simply that things with moving parts have an inherent ability to be taken apart and repaired with my hands.
With this said, it is super thrilling when I can design and build something that includes moving parts because they can be an additional layer used to tell the story of how something works.