Saturday, June 14, 2008

French curves

When I went off to college in 1954 to study engineering, one of the first courses I took was Mechanical Drawing. Lordy, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. What fun! To sit at a drafting table with the set of spiffy instruments I had inherited from my father and draw screw threads, bolt heads, and machine parts in isometric projection. Our textbook was Thomas Ewing French's Mechanical Drawing, the same book my father used at the University of Tennessee a generation earlier.

The stainless steel compass, the three-sided rule, the sandpaper paddle on which to shape the pencil lead, the T-square, the clear plastic French curves. (Why "French"? Did Thomas E. invent them? I haven't been able to find the answer. Any help?) There was something wonderfully sensual, tactile, and deliberate about mechanical drawing. Nothing particularly creative. The emphasis was on technique and the consistent application of established conventions that the man in the machine shop could understand. Nevertheless, some students in the class had the gift; their drawings were exquisite. Others students had a hard time drawing a straight line with their pencil point against a rule. I fell somewhere in between.

But I loved it. As I love the current exhibit in the gallery at my college. Mechanical drawings from the college's industrial archives, inherited from the Ames tool company whose history is so intimately bound up with the history of our town and our college. And delightful semiabstract interpretations by the artist Heather Hobler. It is lovely to see an artist of Hobler's talent offer homage to the engineering draftsperson. (Click image to enlarge.)

All gone now. The compasses, the T-squares, the French curves, the thin graphite lines on crisp white paper. Today, it's all done with computers -- CAD, computer-aided design. I wonder if my copy of French's Mechanical Drawing is up in the attic. I would love to thumb it again and relive in memory those pleasurable afternoon hours on the drafting table at the University of Notre Dame.