My favourite part of a public library has always
been the large amorphous section between the pure sciences (the 500s) and the fine arts
(the 700s), usually simply labelled `the useful arts'. It contains everything from
rocketry to crochet, engineering, hobbies, cookery, etc. Mr Dewey, who devised the
absurdly ambitious classification of all human knowledge for the libraries, has become a
hero of mine. There are many connections between the arts and the sciences, but Mr Dewey's
seems particularly strong.
As a child, I constantly made things at home, mechanical things like a burglar catching
machine (a female figure that beckoned the burglar and then hit him with a hammer). I
never thought making them was doing art (though I lavished attention on their appearance),
or doing science (though I was constantly experimenting with electricity, materials and
mechanisms to get them to work).
At school, subjects became rapidly polarised. Arts subjects seemed to consist mainly of
writing essays, science subjects of doing sums. Not particularly interested in any school
subject, I chose sciences because I found sums much quicker than essays. Things have
improved since the sixties when I was at school, but teaching still has to centre round
activities that can be done in classrooms, sitting at desks, and which can also be
I was good at sums, and eventually got to Cambridge, with a scholarship to read
engineering science. This was an intensely theoretical course, and though some of the
mathematical analysis was quite elegant, I found it frustrating being without any tools or
workshop. Instead, I started to draw cartoons, eventually contributing a regular strip
(called The Rudiments of Wisdom) for a student newspaper. Throughout my time there,
despite regular engineering drawing classes, my `arty' external activities seemed to have
no connection with my engineering. Since leaving 24 years ago, I have very gradually
realised how wrong I was. Cartoons and engineering design have much in common, united as
elements of Mr Dewey's useful arts.
An early commission I took on was drawing a cross-section of a brewery, showing how the
beer was made. Showing the pipes going from one process to the next, I needed far fewer
words than a wholely written explanation, the drawing was not only decorative, it was also
conveying information. The use of drawings to convey information is widespread; diagrams,
graphs, and maps - imagine trying to express all the information in a map in words.
I have continued to find new applications, only recently discovering that I could
decimate the number of words on labels in the Science Museum without removing any
information by adding cartoon drawings to show how the objects were used.