Tuesday, December 08, 2009

`How Things Work'

The shelves above the shop teacher’s desk are crowded with textbooks, instruction manuals and other dusty odds and ends, but one title grabbed my attention: How Things Work. Such chutzpah is irresistible.

It’s a 590-page hardcover with reinforced binding, dense with text on the left-hand pages and “1071 two-colour [black, red] drawings” on the right. No author is given. The copyright page notes that Wie Funtioniert Das? was published by Bibliographisches Institut in 1963. In Great Britain the volume was retitled, with comparable hubris, The Universal Encyclopedia of Machines. That’s the translation, put out by Heron Books of London in 1967, I held in my dust-covered hands. For distribution in the U.S., the book was again retitled, without explanation – thus, How Things Work. Here’s the opening paragraph of the foreword, signed “The Publishers”:

“This volume is not a reference book in the ordinary sense. It has been designed, instead, to give the layman an understanding of how things work [italics in the original], from the simplest mechanical function of modern life to the most basic scientific principles and complex industrial processes that affect our well-being. The result is, we believe, a unique book – a graphic and original introduction to the modern world of technology.”

That sounds as though it were translated from the German by what the book calls a “Programme-Controlled Electronic Computer.” They’ve even included a page devoted to “Translation Programme for a Programme-Controlled Computer,” which begins like this:

“For translation into another language, a text must first of all be coded as a sequence of machine words. For example, one of the numbers 01 to 32 can be assigned to each of the 32 characters of a teleprinter [a word my spell-check software doesn’t recognize]. A word of n letters will then occupy 2n decimal places in the storage and may, in certain circumstances, occupy several consecutive storage locations.”

Forty-two years after the fact, it’s tempting to feel superior to such earnest explanations, but it’s noteworthy that I do understand it, and wish I had had a copy of How Things Work in 1967, when I knew nothing about computers. I’ve always loved browsing in such audacious books.

No preliminaries follow the foreword. The next page is an explanation of “Distillation,” then “Centrifuge,” “Fire Extinguisher,” “Temperature Measuring Instruments” and “Dry Ice.” There’s something quite mad about the entire enterprise, and yet I find it charming and deeply interesting, like the human imagination. Technical explanations can be fiendishly difficult to write without lapsing into redundancy or ambiguity. “The Publishers” do it fairly well (see their explanations of “Dry Cleaning” and “Explosives”). The book reminds me of what Guy Davenport wrote in his introductory note to The Hunter Gracchus:

“I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”

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