Tag: engineering

The Boy Mechanic

Boy Mechanic 1

It’s difficult for me to describe the magic I felt the first time I came across an old volume of “The Boy Mechanic” at the house of a friend of the family. I was young, perhaps ten or eleven years old, and already had a knack for seeing how things worked. Even at that age, I loved making things (though I had very few resources and tools). And so then here, suddenly, was this big, heavy, thick old book that showed all manner of amazing things a handy “boy” could make.

Clearly the book was old. Some of the contraptions required access to barrel staves, buggy springs … things from an earlier time. Nonetheless, it was chock full of clever things you could make with ordinary hand tools, access to the sort of odds and ends of the time, and a lot of patience, free time, and some degree of skill.

Many of the projects looked fun. Some even looked dangerous!
Boy Mechanic

And, I soon discovered, the family also had additional volumes of “The Boy Mechanic” that were published afterward. They were just as thick and just as crammed with projects, and ideas. In fact, the first run of “The Boy Mechanic” included four volumes.

Unfortunately, for me, I was unable to borrow the books and had to content myself with poring over them when our family came over to visit. Because of the books age (already about seventy years old at that time) I was not able to find them in the library to check out.

Eventually, when I got older, I tracked down some of the volumes in used book stores and purchased them. Eventually too I found reprints of the first four volumes and purchased these as well. I also discovered that the original four volumes were not the last of “The Boy Mechanic” that had been created — new editions with new projects and crafts were printed sometime around the 50’s.

I will share some of the amazing things from these books in some of the postings that follow. Maybe, if these books are new to you, you can show them to someone young and creative in your life and perhaps they too will get some of the inspiration that I did.

In this day and age, it is unfortunate that the books specify a gender in the title. Maybe when you present the series to a young person you can simply describe the books as The Young Mechanic.

The original “The Boy Mechanic, Vol. I” was published in 1913 and so is well outside of copyright. For this reason it is easy enough to find a copy of the book online for free. Here is one such link:


And also “The Boy Mechanic, Vol. 2”:


The Turing Test

I think the idea of machine intelligence crept into my consciousness when I was very young. I had visited the Museum Of Science And Industry in Chicago and saw on display a computer that you could play Tic-Tac-Toe against. And then a few years later I saw the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey” in a movie theater with the intelligent machine, HAL.

Now as an adult, having programmed computers for a living, the Tic-Tac-Toe playing computer is laughably simplistic. You could easily sketch a simple flow-chart that plays the game with a simple arrangement of switches. (In trying to find out about the original museum display I had seen, it appears it may have been created by Bell Labs using essentially telephone switches to encode the tic-tac-toe game logic.)

The intelligent computer referred to as Hal though in the movie “2001” was much more intriguing — it was portrayed as equivalent or better than a human in every way, albeit emotionless and amoral. I suppose though that those two childhood occurrences, the museum computer and the film computer represented on one hand, what was possible at the time and, on the other hand, what might be possible in the future.

Being young though I assumed that the film was a reliable prediction of the future and thought that in fact that all of these things would come to pass by the year 2001.

Historically, researchers have predicted that we would see human-level machine intelligence in about twenty years. This has been fairly consistently the prediction for the past sixty years.

Well, 2016 now and no HAL.

alan-turingThe bigger surprise though may be that anyone was even considering the idea of a thinking machine as early as the 1950’s. This was when Alan Turing, a famous mathematician and early computer scientist, published his paper called “The Imitation Game”.

He asked, how would we know if a machine was intelligent? He suggested in fact that we might not know. Perhaps, he reasoned, the better question then is, under what circumstances might we ascribe human intelligence to a machine?

To answer this question he proposed what has come to be known as The Turing Test. The basic premise is that an observer is allowed to interact with an entity that is either another human or is a machine — the observer does not know which. The observer is allowed to send questions, perhaps typed out, to the entity and by the replies received (also perhaps typed out) they are to determine if they are communicating with a machine or a human. If after a time they cannot tell which, then we must suggest that if it is a machine then it is at the very least imitating human intelligence.

If current predictions are correct, we should see this level of “imitation” within twenty years. 🙂

The Automobile Transmission

Especially with the popularity of cars with automatic transmissions, many drivers today may forget that there are complicated systems of gears that transmit power from the car’s engine to the car’s wheels. Drivers that can work a clutch and a stick shift are certainly aware of a cars gearing but may be clueless as to how it all goes together.

An educational film from 1936 shows how an automobile’s gearing is put together.

When the film begins, it describes the lever and its mechanical advantage. Soon however the subject turns to gears and the modern (for 1936) automotive transmission.

The gearbox they detail, which was standard at that time, is merely a three speed transmission (plus reverse) and yet it is already fairly complex. It boggles the mind what a modern seven speed gearbox must resemble.

Ninety-Ninety Rule

The Ninety-Ninety Rule (regarding software engineering):

“The first 90% of the code accounts for the first 90% of the development time. The remaining 10% of the code accounts for the other 90% of the development time.”

— Tom Cargill, Bell Labs

I don’t believe it is the case any longer that public schools offer vocational classes. I remember in middle school (junior high) I took a wood shop class. I enjoyed that experience a great deal. They offered metal shop and automotive shop classes as well.

I imagine the following film might have been shown in an automotive class. It’s wonderful how it describes the problem and then the solution that differential gearing provides in a way most students can probably understand.

An educational look at how things work. More films like this, please.
(The actual education content begins about 1:55 into the film.)

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