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Rube Goldberg and the Electrification of America 207

Posted by samzenpus
from the start-of-something-great dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Alexis Madrigal has an interesting essay in the Atlantic about the popular response of people in the 19th century to the development of the electric power industry in America. Before electricity, basically every factory had to run a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine, transmitting power from a water wheel or a steam engine to the machines of a manufactory but with the development of electric turbines and motors the public believed engineers were tapping mysterious, invisible forces with almost supernatural powers for mischief. 'Think about it,' writes Madrigal. 'You've got a wire and you've got a magnet. Switch on the current — which you can't see and have no intuitive way to know exists — and suddenly the wire begins to rotate around the magnet. You can reverse the process, too. Rotate the magnet around the wire and it generates a current that can be turned into light, heat, or power.' And that brings us back to Rube Goldberg, a cartoonist who was was shockingly popular in his heyday and whose popularity closely parallels the rise of electrification in America. 'I think Goldberg's drawings reminded his contemporaries of a time when they could understand the world's industrial processes just by looking. No matter how absurd his work was, anyone could trace the reactions involved,' writes Madrigal. 'People like to complain that they can't understand modern cars because of all the fancy parts and electronic doo-dads in them now, but we lost that ability for most things long ago.'"
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Rube Goldberg and the Electrification of America

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  • Understanding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dr_strang (32799) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:16AM (#33776994)

    I derive a great amount of personal satisfaction from learning and understanding how things work. I find I'm definitely a minority in that respect. It saddens me.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I derive a great amount of personal satisfaction from learning and understanding how things work. I find I'm definitely a minority in that respect. It saddens me.

      I actually find that most people are interested in understanding how things work. However, most people don't have time to learn advanced physics or learn how other things work because they are more worried being busy raising kids, feeding their family, maintaining social relationships, or dealing with crime in their neighborhood.

      It's just the nerds that grew up in suburbia and never leave their computers who think that they are special.

      • Re:Understanding (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:33PM (#33777438)

        I actually find that most people are interested in understanding how things work. However, most people don't have time to learn advanced physics or learn how other things work because they are more worried being busy raising kids, feeding their family, maintaining social relationships, or dealing with crime in their neighborhood.

        I find the opposite. Your average American wouldn't bother learning how things work even if they had all the time in the world. When I try to explain computer concepts to my kid-raising, family-feeding, social-relationship-maintaining co-workers, they usually just shake their heads and say "that's way over my head."

        Given the extra time, most of them would probably spend it watching TV, going out to eat, or reading trashy novels.

        • by c_forq (924234)
          I see where you are coming from, but I think a computer is different than most things in that it is all abstract. Explaining how a blender or a rear differential work is far more intriguing because there are actual moving parts and things that happen. I know I am constantly learning how different parts of cars work (valve engines and rotary engines for example) but have not spent any time trying to understand microcode or how cores on a processor work.
        • Try finding out how the offside rule in soccer works sometime; preferably from a soccer fan. I suspect you will learn to commiserate with your fellows ambivalence towards technology.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by gfreeman (456642)

            Dear girls,

            You're in a shoe shop, second in line at the register. Behind the shop assistant operating the register is a pair of shoes which you have seen and which you must have.

            The 'opposing' female shopper in front of you has seen them also and is eyeing them with desire.

            Both of you have forgotten your purses.

            It would be totally rude to push in front of the first woman if you had no money to pay for the shoes.

            The shop assistant remains at the register waiting.

            Your friend is trying on another pair of shoes

        • Re:Understanding (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Burning1 (204959) on Monday October 04, 2010 @01:20AM (#33781906) Homepage

          The funny thing is, if one of those kid-raising, family-feeding, social-relationship-maintaining co-workers tried to tell you how to change a diaper, how to have a rewarding social relationship, or how to not act like a tosser, you'd probably blow them off.

          Sure, you might show some interest in it if you encountered the right teacher or already had an existing interest, but if someone interrupted your work day to talk about how to make friends, you probably wouldn't be so inclined to listen.

      • Re:Understanding (Score:5, Insightful)

        by TeknoHog (164938) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @02:13PM (#33778022) Homepage Journal

        I actually find that most people are interested in understanding how things work. However, most people don't have time to learn advanced physics or learn how other things work because they are more worried being busy raising kids, feeding their family, maintaining social relationships

        Raising a family and having a social life are choices. Nobody is forced to do either.

        I generally feel that some of the basic human needs are (1) being loved and accepted, and (2) doing your own thing. Everyone has to balance between these two, since they are conflicting to some extent. I think nerds/geeks are simply the ones who choose to do a little more of (2).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Hans Lehmann (571625)
        So it's only nerds that spend the time to understand how anything actually works, while you Real Americans can't bothered with such unnecessary details. No wonder our country is going down the shit hole, too many people think just like you.
      • by sjames (1099)

        There was a time (at least in my region of the country) where knowing how a car works was just a natural part of manhood. Some knew more than others but all needed to know at least some to be a real man.

        That was in addition to all of the other things.

        That and many other things that used to make our society strong are victims of the growing number of hours adults in a household must apply to employment in order to tread water.

        • by c_forq (924234)
          That time still exists in many (maybe most) places in America. It wasn't that long ago that I was a teenager, and when I grew up it was expected you at least knew the basics (how to hook up a battery to jump start an engine, change a tire, etc). Engines have become complex beasts though, and even the kids in the auto classes couldn't be counted on to diagnose a problem in a newer car without plugging into it.
          • by sjames (1099)

            The amount of knowledge is shrinking though. It used to include how to do a brake job, thermostat, starter, fuel pump, etc. It wasn't until the job called for pulling the engine that the knowledge needed became less common (and then mostly because of the additional tools needed compared to the rarity of needing to do it).

            Most of that was just a matter of diagnosing the problem, then being able to disassemble remembering where everything goes and then putting it back together correctly with the new parts.

            Tha

      • Re:Understanding (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Ephemeriis (315124) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @03:47PM (#33778690)

        I derive a great amount of personal satisfaction from learning and understanding how things work. I find I'm definitely a minority in that respect. It saddens me.

        I actually find that most people are interested in understanding how things work. However, most people don't have time to learn advanced physics or learn how other things work because they are more worried being busy raising kids, feeding their family, maintaining social relationships, or dealing with crime in their neighborhood.

        It's just the nerds that grew up in suburbia and never leave their computers who think that they are special.

        Your mileage has obviously varied from mine...

        I spent the last 7 years of my life working for a small IT shop providing support to local businesses, private individuals, college students, and anyone else with a broken computer.

        It's been my experience that folks simply do not care to learn how things work. It isn't a matter of not having time, they just don't care. They've got their job, their set of tasks, and that's all they care about. They don't want to know anything more than that.

        Obviously there's individual variation. I find computers interesting, so I've learned a lot about them. Some other person finds plants interesting and has learned a lot about gardening. And not everyone is averse to learning about new things.

        But I've found an awful lot of people just aren't curious. They don't know how something works, they don't care how it works, and they'll actively resist learning about it.

        I've tried to teach people how to work the computers they're sitting in front of... How to use the software that's necessary for them to do their jobs... And they'll almost instantly declare that something is beyond them as soon as you vary one hair from their daily routine. Try to explain that you can move an icon to a different place on the screen? "I just don't understand those computer things..."

        I'm not sure that your average human being has ever been terribly curious. Maybe it's always been somewhat atypical.

        But curiosity is definitely being discouraged these days. You aren't supposed to ask too many questions. You aren't supposed to do anything too unusual. Better not do anything suspicious...

        Geeks, almost by definition, are curious creatures. Not just IT geeks. Anyone with the drive and passion to really find out how things work - be it a computer programmer, an automotive mechanic, a structural engineer, a geologist, or whatever - is going to fall outside of the social norm. That's why they're called "geeks".

    • Re:Understanding (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Locutus (9039) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @02:54PM (#33778218)
      I bet that if you asked a dozen people in their 30s what makes an electric motor work, you'd be lucky to get one who was even close to understanding the basics of how it works. The automobile is the same, people are not taught any of the basics of this thing they drive around in and control. And I constantly hear brakes squealing, belts squealing, and sometimes even u-joints screaming and clunking. The drivers are clueless as to what is going to happen as they keep driving the vehicles to the point of part failure.

      Just look at how "computers" are taught in most schools. They teach the students what to click on instead of teaching the concepts of those things. This is also why I get so much opposition to teaching word processing using something other and Microsoft Word. They think it must look like MS Word or they don't feel the students are learning anything of value. Most all of the teachers are lacking in the understanding to teach anything but a step by step process and then checking off "Teaching The Word".

      yes, it is very sad.

      LoB
      • Re:Understanding (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Reality Master 101 (179095) <RealityMaster101@noSpAM.gmail.com> on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:36PM (#33781440) Homepage Journal

        I bet that if you asked a dozen people in their 30s what makes an electric motor work, you'd be lucky to get one who was even close to understanding the basics of how it works.

        Define "works". I'm willing to bet that very VERY few people really understand how an electric motor actually works. Sure, some could say "it uses brushes that switch on/off electromagnets at synchronized times," but *HOW* does it work? What is an electromagnet actually doing to convert electrical energy into physical movement? What is a magnetic field? Why does it cause certain metals to move?

        I'm reminded of this (rather profound) video of Richard Feynman being asked what, exactly, is magnetism [youtube.com] and he explains just how difficult these questions are to answer.

        My point is that you lament that certain people don't even know about brush and electromagnets, while a physicist might lament that you have very little idea what is actually happening with electromagnetic forces. Now, you might reply, "I don't need to know Deep Physics to have a basic understanding of how a motor works!"

        And I would say, "exactly." We are all ignorant, just different levels of ignorance. It really doesn't matter how a motor works to most people's lives. Sure, it's interesting, but then, so is knowing how to shoot a proper jump shot in basketball.

        • Re:Understanding (Score:4, Interesting)

          by thegarbz (1787294) on Monday October 04, 2010 @02:52AM (#33782208)

          I bet that if you asked a dozen people in their 30s what makes an electric motor work, you'd be lucky to get one who was even close to understanding the basics of how it works.

          Define "works". I'm willing to bet that very VERY few people really understand how an electric motor actually works.

          That's all good and fine but the real problem stems from people not even investigating that very first step. Sure not everyone is going to be an electrical engineer, and based on what I saw going through and coming out of uni not all electrical engineers understand how motors work either despite physics being one of the standard questions. The real problem is most people aren't interested in even the first step, the very basics, and ultimately that basic level of understanding is what will prevent them from being conned in real life.

          Define "works" you say? I would expect that a curious person knows that a motor spins because of electro magnatism. That's it. An engine spins because of an explosion creating a force on a thingamabob that turns the wheels. I expect people to know it rains because water evaporates, condenses and falls from the sky. That is basic curiosity that is sadly missing from too many people. That basic curiosity that would look at a Rube Goldberg machine and actually follow through what actions happen from start to end and then laugh at the design. If for a moment you thought, "that boot in TFA would never kick the ball at the right angle" then you're no longer "many people" you're now a geek who loves understanding.

      • It was around 2000 but it still holds true today.
        There was a very simple first year practical session I was running for engineering students to do a tensile test on a piece of metal and then plot the results using a spreadsheet. The plan was to drop the existing package and use MS Excel on the grounds that every student knew how to use MS Excel and we could get more done in the time.
        It turned into a three hour session on teaching students how to do an incredibly simple line graph because the students didn'
  • I don't think the ability in the example is lost, it just wasn't part of everyday life or part of education.

    Unlike the car bit, electricity is not a hard concept to get if it's not treated as something alien and new. Or maybe that's just the way it seems to someone like me that could understand basic physics...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well then, please explain to us peons how fuckin' magnets work!

      • by Nursie (632944) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:30AM (#33777080)

        It's a goddamned miracle or magic or some shit, clearly, as was explained to me in Physics class.

        • Re:Lost the ability? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by DigiShaman (671371) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @04:26PM (#33778980) Homepage

          Well actually, yes. That would be correct. While we understand magnetism as a force and how it can be generated, we still don't know WHY or HOW it even existed since the creation of the Universe. Pretty much like gravity and the strong force too.

          So while we are very good at understanding our Universe compared to 100 years ago, fundamentally the laws are still "magic or some shit".

      • They work with light.

      • please explain to us peons how fuckin' magnets work!

        Well, of course I don't know exactly how fucking magnets work, but ordinary magnets are a side effect of the Theory of Relativity (notice the capitals).

        When electrical charges move, the charge is changed by the same proportion as masses are changed by the Lorentz contraction [wikipedia.org].

        It's quite weird in fact, relativistic effects on mass are barely perceptible until you reach a significant speed compared to the speed of light, but that's because mass (as far as we

        • by BluBrick (1924) <blubrick@MONETgmail.com minus painter> on Sunday October 03, 2010 @03:54PM (#33778744) Homepage

          Well, of course I don't know exactly how fucking magnets work, but ordinary magnets are a side effect of the Theory of Relativity (notice the capitals).

          I see, the capitals are an important aspect of the incantation.

          When electrical charges move, the charge is changed by the same proportion as masses are changed by the Lorentz contraction [wikipedia.org].

          I have a magnet, and I have a piece of iron, I have no electricity. What does this charge you speak of come from? And How is it moving?

          It's quite weird in fact, relativistic effects on mass are barely perceptible until you reach a significant speed compared to the speed of light, but that's because mass (as far as we know) is always positive.

          Hang about just a minute. Exactly what does the speed of light have to do with anything here? If relativistic effects are barely perceptible until you get near the speed of light, why bring up the topic in relation to stationary (or very nearly so) magnets?

          Electric charges are balanced between positive and negative, a very, very, VERY small change in them will disrupt the delicate balance and a force will appear: the magnetic force.

          I've already told you I have no electricity here with my magnet and my iron. So a force appears out of a change in some mysterious electric charges that have no source? It must be magic!

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by T Murphy (1054674)
      Well if something isn't working right one of the first things to check is "is it on"*. With something mechanical you usually have movement or sound to tell you the answer to that. For a circuit, you have to go get your multimeter- you can't really observe the circuit unaided. Anyone who has worked with breadboard circuits knows how tedious it is to debug a circuit compared to a mechanical device. It may not be magic, but it is always going to be more abstract than physical systems.

      *As in you're checking
      • by jesset77 (759149)

        With something mechanical you usually have movement or sound to tell you the answer to that. For a circuit, you have to go get your multimeter- you can't really observe the circuit unaided.

        So in short, it's easy to forensically sift out symptoms from the constant noise a mechanical device generates in the process of wearing itself down to a stub, but it's so difficult to diagnose problems in solid state electronics with no noise to analyze.

        Yeah, I guess that's a tradeoff. Just wait until you're working on quantum computers and no multimeter in the world will get you past Heisenberg's velvet rope to find out what really went wrong. ;D

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:20AM (#33777012)

    Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
    Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
    It is the business of the wealthy man
    To give employment to the artisan.

    Hillaire Belloc

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:20AM (#33777016) Homepage

    They were just familiar with it.

    • by couchslug (175151) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:47AM (#33777176)

      They had to understand most of it to operate it properly.

      Back in The Day, when Popular Mechanics literally MEANT "popular mechanics", machines didn't stay functional without understanding operators and frequent maintenance.

      Get the spark advance and throttle wrong on a Model T Ford and it won't start, or won't run properly if it does start. Changing transmission bands was routine, as was carrying spares. The reason old machines had LOTS of CONVENIENT access covers was that they were necessary.

      http://www.cimorelli.com/projects/relining_transmission_bands/relining_model_t_transmission_bands.htm [cimorelli.com]

      If you drove a car, you were expected to be able to not only swap a spare wheel when you got a flat, but be able to repair the flat by patching the tube. Materials wore quickly and lubricants weren't very good, so a "grease pit" was a common feature of HOME garages. Brakes were trash by modern standards, so DIY brake jobs were very common for many decades.

      High personal involvement with what one used and drove was standard through the 1950s.

      • by jesset77 (759149)

        High personal involvement with what one used and drove was standard through the 1950s.

        God, that sounds about like the requirement to run computers these days too.

        I wonder when our industry will grow as mature as 1950's automotive, where knowing how to operate the steering wheel, foot pedals, signals, wipers, lights, pamphlet worth of road policies and how to talk to a mechanic can get you anywhere you want to go?

  • by TheLink (130905) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:30AM (#33777074) Journal

    I think Goldberg's drawings reminded his contemporaries of a time when they could understand the world's industrial processes just by looking

    I think predict would be a more accurate description. Understanding is not the same as prediction, though it helps make better predictions.

    I could could predict that something would fall in a certain scenario even though I don't understand much about gravity. Most of us nerds aren't satisfied with mere prediction, we seek understanding (which helps us make better predictions). But "normal" people don't care that much about understanding stuff, they are happy with just being able to predict stuff. So keep the windows and icons in the same places and they will be happy that they can repeat the same steps to get their stuff done.

    So yes, from the electrical age to the computer age many things have become less predictable. A live wire that's deadly could look the same as one that has no electricity flowing in it.

    But in the US anyway, flip a switch and you can turn the lights on fairly predictably. More predictably than gathering firewood, starting your own fire from a "magical match" or even a flint (do normal people actually understand how matches work?), or being able to get enough tallow to make your own candles for the night.

    So other things have become more predictable.

    • by pjt33 (739471)

      To be honest, I find matches easier to understand than flint + steel.

      • Flint and steel is pretty straightforward, though a bit unintuitive. If struck right, you'll actually knock bits of steel off - these have a lot of kinetic energy since you were moving the (much bigger) objects pretty quickly. The blob of steel will glow red hot and light stuff on fire.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by AJWM (19027)

          If struck right, you'll actually knock bits of steel off - these have a lot of kinetic energy since you were moving the (much bigger) objects pretty quickly. The blob of steel will glow red hot and light stuff on fire.

          There's a little bit more to it than that: tiny bits of iron (thus with a high surface area to volume ratio) will spontaneously combust in air, so they're actually burning, not just glowing. The kinetic heat helps that happen with somewhat larger bits. That's why it works with iron or stee

          • Quite right, I should've made that more clear. My main point is, the steel (ideally) isn't doing anything to the flint, but the other way around.

        • by pjt33 (739471)

          Cool. Thanks.

    • by Guignol (159087)
      What a nice, insightful post, I started reading it not getting it and pondering 'wtf' but eventually I got your point, thanks it was nice to read.
  • by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:31AM (#33777088) Homepage Journal

    Most people today likely couldn't explain what electricity is even if they remotely understand what it does... sort of.

    I think it only makes sense to build a religion around electricity.

    There could be a stone with some writings on it, like:

    1. Thou shalt not touch naked electrical wires with bare hands, etc.

    There could be real 'magic' performed, with things shining and flying and moving and doing some other work, even moving the dead carcasses of animals!

    It'd be wonderful.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      There could be real 'magic' performed, with things shining and flying and moving and doing some other work, even moving the dead carcasses of animals!

      Thomas Edison tried the electrocuted animal thing back during the War of Currents, when he and Tesla were in a huff about whether AC or DC was better: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Currents [wikipedia.org]

      Apparently, the folks back then were not terribly impressed. Maybe the ancient Romans would have gotten their rocks off at seeing an elephant being electrocuted.

      O tempora o mores!

    • by Twinbee (767046) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:11PM (#33777316) Homepage

      Can I subscribe to your newsletter - I am going through a difficult time with my faith in the FSM atm, so I am desperately seeking the real truth. Someone sent me this as a present, and I still have nightmares that these things will haunt and eat me. Please help - I am at my wits end. :(
      http://www.venganza.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/cupcake1.jpg [venganza.org]

      • by roman_mir (125474) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @02:38PM (#33778142) Homepage Journal

        sure you can, but my newsletter will be distributed via very high voltage and current, this way the recipient will be able to testify with actual physical evidence that he/she is talking to god through me and the mail. You'll be receiving the first transmission in 24 hours from now, all you have to do is stick 2 wires in the closest to you electrical outlet and exactly 24 hours from now you'll have to grab both of the wires and hold onto them as hard as you can.

        The BIG ELECTRON, our GOD will be speaking to you directly right then and there.

        This'll also take care of your FSM nightmares.

    • by garyebickford (222422) <gar37bic.gmail@com> on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:17PM (#33777360)

      IMHO 'magic' is anything that the user doesn't understand (which is true at some level of everything) - for some folks, turning on a light switch is performing magic. But then there's this...

      The Ark of the Covenant may have been a really big capacitor - two layers of conductor (gold foil) separated by acacia wood, with the two layers each connected to one of the cherubim that rose above and reached toward each other - essentially forming two points for an arc to traverse under the right circumstances. In the desert, this might well build up a pretty good charge. I think some folks at MIT once built a replica, borrowing the gold from somewhere - it could hold a one farad charge IIRC.

      And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth [his hand] to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook [it].
      And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for [his] error; and there he died by the ark of God.

      (Blue Letter Bible [blueletterbible.org].

      • by TheTurtlesMoves (1442727) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @01:23PM (#33777736)
        Might want to brush up on your physics. No way in hell it would hold a Farad (ie 1 coulomb per volt). Only very recently can you get 1 farad caps, and they have a peek voltage on the order of 10V or less.
        • by Gordonjcp (186804)

          Only very recently can you get 1 farad caps, and they have a peek voltage on the order of 10V or less.

          Tell that to the box of 47,000uF 100V capacitors I have sitting on a shelf in the workshop. You'd need 21 of those in parallel.

          ATTENTION SLASHDOT JANITORS - YOUR SITE IS BROKEN. THE "u" IN "47,000uF" IS SUPPOSED TO BE A MICRO SYMBOL BUT YOUR BROKEN CODE STRIPS OUT NON-ASCII CHARACTERS.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by sharkey (16670)

          ...they have a peek voltage...

          So, do they have a built-in window to let you peek at the voltage, or do you need specialized equipment?

    • by sjames (1099)

      The same is true of electricians. Many don't know exactly what electricity is or how it works at the atomic level, nor do they need to. They know how it behaves and how it affects things at the macroscopic level. You don't need a degree in physics to figure out that drawing 10 amps through a wire rated at 5 is a bad idea. All the stuff about electrons and atoms bumping each other is unimportant to the task, "it'll catch fire" just about covers it.

      That goes beyond the more typical understanding that is limit

  • Niagra falls (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday October 03, 2010 @11:36AM (#33777114)

    Before the electricity generation station was built there, all the land above the falls was covered in factories, all with their own water wheels.
    An alternative plan to electricity was to have around 100 mill races, each making about 500hp, and keeping the factories on site.
    Also, they experimented with using hydraulic and mechanical power transfer as a way to transmit power to the nearby towns.

  • when i did my mech eng BTEC we still had to learn how to design old skool belt drives :-)
    • Belts are simple, cheap and provide some useful slip and stretch in a power transmission system. For short range power transmission (a few inches, or so), they're great. They use a lot less material and can tolerate more misalignment than a gear set or chain and sprockets that span the same distance.

      When you have to use lots of them, and transmit the power greater distances (more than a few feet), they become unwieldy.

  • Tuning your car by rotating the distributor cap with a strobe-light "timing gun" aimed at the marks on the pulley.

    Sigh...

    It was nowhere near as efficient as the all-electronic, computer-based thingamabobs that tune your car 100 times a second; but it was something teenage boys could understand, and frequently did.

    There are too many reasons now for them not to give teenage boys a USB interface to all the wonderful stuff going on under the hood. It would probably be even more fun than rotating that stinking

    • But that is still the usual way to time a car.

      You just don't adjust the timing every 3-6 months like you had to when you had points.

    • by couchslug (175151) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:29PM (#33777422)

      Teenage boys are still car geeks, if car forums are to be believed.

      They grew up with EFI and don't know they shouldn't be able to understand it.

      • by Oceanplexian (807998) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @04:02PM (#33778814) Homepage
        I'm a car geek and also into technology and computers. I have arguments with my "mechanically inclined" friend about carbs vs efi all the time. If you understand integrated devices and can plug in a multimeter, it's actually easier to work with computers. I can diagnose a fueling problem on my VW by plugging in my laptop and getting statistics.

        1 - Car is running like crap, bogs when driving
        2 - Plug in computer and get code (let's say the Coolant Temp sensor is malfunctioning)
        3 - Plug in multimeter into said sensor and get voltage
        4 - If the voltage is not between x and y, replace the sensor.
        5 - If all else fails, replace the ECU for a total of $50 at a junkyard

        How is this so difficult? Technology makes cars easier to work on, it's just that tech hipsters don't want to get dirty and car-geeks don't want to use that new fangled computer stuff.
        • by kaizokuace (1082079) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @05:08PM (#33779300)
          seriously! I don't have mod points so I give you high five!

          These days being a techy or being a car guy crosses over. I can't believe you friend argues that carbs are better than EFI! Yes carbs are more manly cuz you can go in there and just tune it with your hands and it sounds awesome and smells badass. But carbs gotta be tuned all the time and arent exact and can't be controlled on the fly during the whole engine range. Computers can do that for us. Also electronic parts don't need to be tuned. You just replace! Easy as pie.
          People just don't wanna have to learn something that they have no clue about. It makes me sad that there seems to be so many more people these days that dont know shit about computers. Like the kids now dont know shit! people think they should cuz they are all texting or using devices and such but all they are doing is using stuff. Knowing how stuff works is a trait that should be more popular but it is not.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Most of the folks that I know that advocate carbs over EFI do so because they want to be able to work on their vehicles on the side of the road. According to them, having an EFI system means that if things go to hell when they are stuck out in the boonies, then they can't break out the toolkit then and there and fix it. When I try to point out to them that proper maintenance should prevent the need to fix your shit out in the boonies, they get belligerent.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by thegarbz (1787294)
          Why is this even up for discussion? Just show him these pictures:carb [autoracing1.com] vs fuel injector [tpub.com]
    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      Car analogy to computer analogy to Rube Goldberg Machine.

      Turn knob to tune latest thingamabobs and gimcracks.

  • by pigiron (104729) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:03PM (#33777278) Homepage
    Oh wait...
  • by FuckingNickName (1362625) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:06PM (#33777290) Journal

    I find "visual" mechanics, i.e. anything which supposedly can be deduced by cursory visual observation rather than a consideration of theory and careful experimentation, most difficult of all. Sometimes I go so far as to wonder whether people who stare at an engine and start waffling in detail about what bit does what, how and why are simply regurgitating what they have read in a book.

    Contrast with quantum mechanics, which may not be "intuitive" to those who find classical mechanics so. But it is precisely why it makes me feel more comfortable. I rely on the facts presented, not on everyone's favourite harbinger of prejudice, common sense, and her sister in arms, the crude analogy. Anyway, it would not have taken thousands of years of human civilisation, including a mathematical and scientific component, to reach F=ma if classical mechanics were really that obvious.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by blahplusplus (757119)

      "Anyway, it would not have taken thousands of years of human civilisation, including a mathematical and scientific component, to reach F=ma if classical mechanics were really that obvious."

      You're forgetting systems of social organization and hierarchy have direct effects on whether scientific thinking is even possible. I'm sure many individuals of the ancient world made great progress towards scientific thinking but due to political or environmental (economic) circumstances beyond their control stopped thi

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:18PM (#33777366) Homepage

    If you read documents from the early history of the telegraph industry, you find that it was considered easier to hire and train "electricians" than "mechanics". People who could understand and fix printing telegraphs, which are complex mechanical devices, were hard to get. People who could wire up simple key-and-sounder Morse systems, maintain the batteries, and use the things were cheaper and easier to train.

    Building working mechanical devices is hard, and designing complex ones is very hard. There aren't that many good mechanism designers, and there never were. Edison was one. All the good Teletype machines were designed by one man, Edward Kleinschmidt. Only a few people ever designed good mechanical calculators. It was really tough before CAD; when Burroughs was designing the first good adding machine, he had to draw on zinc sheets with scribing tools, because paper wasn't dimensionally stable enough. Even today it's tough. You have to design within the limits of what can be manufactured, what can be manufactured cheaply, what doesn't need an excessive parts count, what will wear well, and such.

    Bad mechanism designers today tend to build things that have too many moving parts and are overly expensive to build. If you build mechanical devices from standard components, the way you build electronics, you get a big kludge.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by noidentity (188756)

      If you read documents from the early history of the telegraph industry, you find that it was considered easier to hire and train "electricians" than "mechanics". People who could understand and fix printing telegraphs, which are complex mechanical devices, were hard to get. People who could wire up simple key-and-sounder Morse systems, maintain the batteries, and use the things were cheaper and easier to train.

      It's not that electricity is simpler, it's just that it leads to simpler solutions for telegraphs

    • by Hartree (191324) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @02:13PM (#33778024)

      Nowadays, they use the electronics to compensate for less robust mechanical design. A lot of work and expense used to be put into making mechanical control systems linear and well behaved.

      Now, instead you use position sensors and servo motors or other actuators with a microcontroller doing the translation in between. Who cares how bouncy, slippy, or hysteresis laden the system is? You just compensate for it in the software that calculates the control outputs to the actuator.

      • by hasdikarlsam (414514) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @06:04PM (#33779668)

        Do you think this is a good or a bad thing? Why?

        • by Hartree (191324) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @07:14PM (#33780064)

          Mostly good. Why do it a more expensive or less effective way?

          One downside is that it makes it hard to do repairs on some items. Example: I fix lab equipment. An incubator I was working on uses an RTD temperature probe. It has settings in the software of the microcontroller running the machine to match it to the particulars of the probe. I have no access to those, so I'm limited in what sort of repairs I can do.

          Repair and support contracts are very lucrative for some industries, and that leads to companies being unwilling to tell you enough information to fix the item. You're restricted to buying their expensive support contracts or trying to reverse engineer anytime you do a repair.

          Congress limited how much car companies could do that, but there is little reason to think they'd do that for more technically oriented items.

  • ...Whoopi's foolish younger brother.

  • by ribuck (943217) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:31PM (#33777434) Homepage
    If you have an old 78rpm record, you can make a record player in about three minutes, to show kids how sound recording works.

    Push a needle through an empty matchbox, put the record on something that you can spin (like the turntable in a microwave). Spin the record and touch the needle to the grooves, and the sound will come out of the matchbox. Kids love it! Then point out the wiggly grooves to them.

    A compact disc isn't directly understandable like that. You can teach people how it works, but they can't see it so they just have to take your word for it.
  • by turbidostato (878842) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @12:35PM (#33777452)

    "'Think about it,' writes Madrigal. 'You've got a wire and you've got a magnet. Switch on the current - which you can't see and have no intuitive way to know exists - and suddenly the wire begins to rotate around the magnet."

    You have no intuitive way to know current exists? My ass!

    Turn on the current and then apply your fingers to the naked wire and then tell me there's no intuitive way to know if current is passing through!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by rts008 (812749)

      I'm shocked you would suggest such direct actions! My hair is positively standing on end!

  • Take a read on William Forstchen's One Second After [onesecondafter.com] for an interesting persepective on how we (as a society) would not do well if suddenly thrown into the dark ages. It is very enlightening.
  • radio waves (Score:4, Insightful)

    by green1 (322787) on Sunday October 03, 2010 @01:01PM (#33777608)

    So now with this knowledge behind us, we are facing exactly the same thing again with radio waves instead of electricity.
    All the people who can't conceive of how RF energy works are swearing that we'll all die if we use a cell phone, and much of the public seems to be buying it.

    A generation from now radio waves will be common place enough that people don't worry about their cell phone killing them, but some new technology will come about and make everyone paranoid again.

    Oh for a bit of science education of the masses...

    • by PPH (736903)

      An explaination of radio, attributed (correctly?) to Albert Einstein:

      "You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by hitmark (640295)

        Or that the cat is a ghost rather then physical...

        Btw. between this and Shrödinger thought experiment about a possibly dead cat in a box, i wonder what physicists of the era had against cats...

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