Thursday, May 20, 2010

The engineer's way of death -- Part 3

Real life for my father was family, work, and community service, in that order. He had six children, all of whom he doted on. He worked for almost thirty years at American Lava Corporation, and was chosen Engineer of the Year by the Chattanooga Engineer's Club in 1965. He was a scoutmaster, a volunteer Director of Athletics at Notre Dame High School, and he barbecued tons of meat each year for the church fair. Nothing exceptional. Nothing that would make him famous. A responsible citizen who gave back to his community and church.

He was an engineer by training and spirit. He didn't design ocean liners, throw suspension bridges across yawning chasms, or invent life transforming machines. He tinkered. He fiddled. He had his finger on the mechanical pulse of the world. He was one of the many thousand of men (few women) of his generation who had a sense of the way the world was put together, the last generation, perhaps, of descendants of the Renaissance engineers and scientists who imagined the world as a great clockwork, designed and set going by the Great Clockmaker. His universe was one of tension and balance, of friction and lubrication, of levers and fulcrums, cogs and ratchets, escapements and cams, of Hooke's Law, the Mhos scale, and the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. There is a famous six volume compendium of 5,000 mechanical devices by the Russian engineer Ivan Artobolevsky, written in the spirit of great tinkerers everywhere. I don't think it appeared in English translation before my father's death, but he would have been very much at home.

Yesterday, while thinking about my Dad's last days, I purchased copies of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics from the newsstand. I hadn't read these magazines for more than 50 years, not since my teens. My father brought the magazines into our house. He was the quintessential popular mechanic, and popular scientist. His basement workshop, with the recycled coal-bin workbench, was well equipped for tinkering. And in a corner of the workshop was an ever-growing pile of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These were the sources of his prodigious inspirations, the muses that inspired his many projects. A new way to keep the gutters from clogging up with leaves. A new way to twiddle the carburetor to make the car run smoother. A new jig for cutting pickets for a fence. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics kept my father on the cutting edge of gimmickry.

To his pile of well-thumbed magazines I often retired for entertainment. During long afternoons I sat huddled under the basement stairs reading about the latest innovations in high and low technology. As I recall, cover stories almost always featured some futuristic mode of transportation: electric automobiles, ocean-going hovercraft, folding-wing airplanes that would fit in the family garage. News-notes featured such things as multi-tipped screwdrivers, self-flushing toilets, and sprayed-concrete houses. It was from these magazines, also, that I first heard about computers, radio astronomy, atomic energy and space flight. That nook under the basement stairs wasn't a bad place to get an education. I read the magazines religiously. They were part of the reason I decided to study science and engineering in college.

Now, as I look at current issues of the magazines, more than a half-century later, I'm pleased to see that not much has changed. They still contain the engaging mix of slick technology and serious science that appealed to my father, the same gee-whiz utopianism that fed his sense of optimism and wonder. As I peruse them again, I am back under the basement stairs, rummaging through issues of the magazines circa 1945-1950, imbibing a down-to-earth philosophy that served my father well for half-a-century, even to the moment of his death.