engineer

tim   .

                                                      


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.   hunkin

                                                         


cartoonist

THE USEFUL ARTS
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This was an illustrated lecture I wrote for a Science and Art conference in 1995. Some of the ideas in it contributed to my more recent 'Technology is what makes us human' piece. It now is dated for two reasons. Libraries are no longer the common source of information, replaced by the internet, and computer design has become much more sophisticated and is now used to design things from scratch.  It also contains a basic mistake - at the time I thought the library classification system had been devised by the Philosopher John Dewey but I later found it had been devised by Melville Dewey, a lifelong librarian. However, Its hard not think they didn't share at least some of the same beliefs. 

This talk is about art and science, and some of the links between them. It is named after the section in my library sandwiched betweeen the pure sciences (the 500s) and the fine arts (the 700s). It is partly, autobiographical, partly historical, and partly about Mr Dewey, the 19th century American who devised the classification system that libraries round the world have used ever since.

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 examined.

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.

Edward Tufty's book `Envisioning Information' is stuffed full of extraordinary examples of visual information of this sort.

 

 

 

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