Two Legs, Thing Using and Talking: The Origins of the Creative
of Engineering, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
of seeing technology as outside ourselves, it is argued that it is an
innate human function and the main driving force in human evolution.
Opportunistic 'thing using', long before stone tools appeared, was the
likeliest cause of bipedalism. It also forced brain development and the emergence of creativity. The neural basis for
this creative technical activity later provided the brain functions on
which language could develop. This simple unifying
hypothesis has interesting implications for the way that we see technology
in history, and for determinist theories of the future. It also
bears on the way engineers are trained, and more important, the human
faculties which need to be fostered in children.
Creativity; Language origins; Palaeontology; Technology; Tool using;
important thing is not what you know, but what you know about what you
This paper explores our ideas about the
nature of technology. It is a word with broad uses and we usually understand it from
the context where it was used - there is no single precise definition. It
sometimes means the advanced products of industrial society
- Space Shuttles, computers, great bridges and so on. Often there is a
hint of some
overall process or force shaping human life. Formerly there were
about the great forces of nature being used for the benefit of mankind -
voices are pointing out dangers to the environment.2 However,
all these uses of
the word treat technology as if it were a 'thing', out there, not a part
of us. By contrast,
it will be approached here as an inherent part of human behaviour.
Kayaks and flint axes have been just as much a form of technology as Space
Shuttles and computers
are today, or clipper ships and stage coaches were a century ago. What
happened in evolution to give us the sort of mind that designs these
questions will be approached under three sections. First, there will be a short
consideration of how we interpret events in technology. Some historians
see it as a process determined by social and economic need. Others
stress the inventive role of
scientists and engineers. These technical issues which interest academic
historians are important because they influence our view of the world. Two
points are particularly important to the issues explored in this paper.
Are we justified in thinking that mankind invented technology? What part does creativity play
in all this?
the second section of the paper, the question of creativity leads into a consideration
of ideas about human origins. Is there any connection between creativity
and technology on the one hand, and on the other hand, key characteristics
of humanity - bipedalism, tool-using and language? Finally, the third
section - what significance
do these ideas have for our thinking on technology or its place in human
History, Creativity - and Did We Invent Technology?
As an academic subject, the history of
technology has been a slow developer. The political, economic and social branches of
history have been studied for many decades and more recently the history of science has
became a full discipline. Technology, on the other hand, usually gets treated as an
element of other areas, as part of economic history where it touches industry or
transport, or as part of military history when the development of weapons like
tanks is concerned. At all events, it has been a subordinate theme - a background to
events. In a lot of cases this is perfectly valid. If one is investigating the origins of
the medieval English Parliament or the religious disputes of the sixteenth century,
then technology played a negligible role. It seems to me, however, that in other areas
of history technology itself was a decisive factor.
the familiar example of the fight between David and Goliath. The defeat of
heavily armed giant by a young shepherd boy is usually interpreted
intervention by the deity on David's behalf. It can be seen a different
wore bronze armour and carried a shield and spear - the weapons of a professional
warrior. David, on the other hand, merely had a sling - which presumably he
practised with while tending the sheep. It is not commonly realised
nowadays that such a sling, which
whirls the stone in a wide circle before releasing it, had an effective
range of 200 yards.3 We could therefore suggest that David had
the superior, long range weapon
- Goliath's spear could not kill at 200 yards - and therefore that the
best explanation of his victory is the technological one.
of perspective and interpretation are not just academic. They affect our
whole way of seeing and doing things. We have to remember that we never
world directly. We only know our sense perceptions and ideas about it. My
instance, has a very different map of the world from mine, based on his
of smell. He is aware of things which I cannot perceive, and this leads
him to behave differently. Our behaviour is not governed by our direct
perceptions, but by
the meaning we attribute to them.
Professor R L Gregory puts it that our brain constructs the
world by the way it processes our perceptions. As an example look at Fig.
1 a rough sketch of two rabbits.
look at it again, expecting to see two pelicans waiting for a fish. This ambiguous
drawing is well known, but it illustrated the point very well, that our expectations
and ideas shape the world that we see.4 At a more complex
level, this is also true of the way in which we approach
technology. It has such a profound influence on human activity that we must understand its function in our
lives as well as we can. In this paper, we will be raiding a number of
different academic territories -
psychology, anthropology and archaeology, as well as parts of engineering
and history - to synthesise a
broader way of seeing technology.
Putting things simply, historians usually approach science and technology
in one or other of two
ways. The first way, the 'internalist', focuses on the content of technology
and science. In this approach, the historian concentrates on the way that
some piece of engineering or scientific work has been done. It may be the
building of a famous bridge, or the development of a series of ships or
steam engines. The approach may
consider scientific theories, and investigate the way that physicists and
engineers arrived at the ideas of thermodynamics or the behaviour of
beams. In general, this internalist approach concentrates on describing the
technical process itself.
The other approach takes things from a human science standpoint, and
tries to explain events as a social phenomenon. Probably the best known
work in this genre is T. S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is a general
description of what happens in a process of radical scientific change, when scientists
exchange one mental model or 'paradigm' for another. Kuhn's interest is not in the
truth or falsehood of either paradigm, but in the social interactions which accompany the
shift - the period of doubt and crisis, the formation of hostile schools of thought
taking radical, conservative and intermediate stances. Incidentally, the differences
between the schools of internalist and externalist historians of science have
led to bitter disputes - which themselves clearly illustrate the Kuhn hypothesis!
general, then, the history of technology has been approached through its
context or its content,
but I would now like to suggest a third approach and look for the origins
of engineering as a function of the human mind.
seems to me that there are three levels at which technology can be
approached in history.
At the first level, i.e. context, it does not matter how something works. We do not need a detailed understanding of printing or steam locomotives
to recognise the enormous
effect that the press had on the diffusion of knowledge during the
Renaissance, or railways' transformation of economic activity in the 19th
century. At this level, the
externalist one, we can see technology in its historical context and
examine, for instance, the forces which tried to resist or to encourage
change. A typical question of this kind
might be about whether canal owners or landed
gentry tried to hinder the building of a new piece of railway to protect
their own interests.
the second level, however, the technology itself has to be understood in
understand events. In the 1830's the railways were challenging the canals'
transport, but themselves were challenged in turn by steam carriages
running on the
ordinary roads. It is easy to understand how desirable such road carriages
appeared, for they could
use the roads just as cars and lorries do today. If we ask ourselves why
railways were successful, yet steam carriages were not, we have to look at
the technology. We need some
idea of the engineering difficulties which steam road carriages
1830 it was much easier to put steam onto rails than on roads. An iron
a hard smooth surface capable of carrying almost any weight, and a steam locomotive
could haul fifty or more waggons. The railway locomotive did not need steering
gear or a differential to help it round corners, and the rails were strong
enough to carry a heavy high-pressure
boiler. By contrast, the road steamers were hard to steer, carried
only light loads, had intractable transmission problems, and their
boilers blew up regularly because they had to be so lightly constructed.5
The engineer of 1830 was simply not able to build a truly
satisfactory steam carriage. The point
of this example is that we need to look at the state of the technology to understand
why things turned out as they did. It is 'an argument for studying the
content or internal side of things.
third level of understanding the history of technology concerns the
when something new is coming into being. It is hard to pin down this
fleeting instant between non-existence and the existence of an idea. Our
brains cannot un-think a
successful solution, or imagine how messy and uncertain the problem
looked before the Eureka event. Inventions are like the pictures used to explain
Gestalt theory. It is very hard to see them; but once seen, they are hard
to forget. It takes a little
time to see the cow in this picture (see Fig. 2), but once we have seen
it, it leaps into view every time we look. Unless we can unthink our
knowledge of an invention, we
cannot grasp the doubts and difficulties which beset the mind of
the inventor - or understand the creative moment.
2. Dallenbach Cow.
to understand the creative moment of key inventions also makes it harder to
see how they change the future course of history. The 'externalist'
approach to history
tends to minimise the role of inventors, by suggesting that new
into existence through the workings of broad social forces. This may be
some invention; there will always be a market for a better can-opener or
more efficient light
bulb. Yet I find it hard to imagine a broad social force inventing anything
of a more original nature. What specifically was the social pressure for
the zip-fastener or 'cats eye'
road-markings before their invention took place? When one
examines cases like the Newcomen steam engine, Stephenson's Rocket or the Wright
Brothers' Flyer, one finds that these individual inventors were years
ahead of their competitors, and that
things might have taken a different path without them.6
It is well to remember that even where there is a need, it does not make
predictable or inevitable. By 1700, Britain was struggling with the
as coal mines were dug deeper, it became harder to pump out the water
This situation did not make Thomas Newcomen's invention of the atmospheric
engine inescapable or its success inevitable. One cannot say much with
things that did not happen, but I know of no other inventor or machine at
the time who had any prospect of succeeding if Newcomen had failed. As for
future, Newcomen was the most influential inventor in history. James Watt
famous, but he started off with a Newcomen engine to repair, and decided
to improve on it; Richard Trevithick, the pioneer of steam railways and
engines, started off initially trying to get round Watt's patents. The
combustion engines used the basic layout of steam engines. Even today, a
motor car engine has the same organs as the Newcbmen engine - piston and cylinder,
inlet valves and timing, a means of transmitting the power to do work.7
Newcomen's engine was an outstanding
example of an invention which was both creative and therefore unpredictable; and it
changed the future so much that it has become hard to 'unthink'.
a contemporary example, we could take the microprocessor. Who, in the early
1950's, imagined such a minute but powerful device? Nobody foresaw its industrial
and administrative impact, or the way that it would put computing power into
the ordinary home. Science fiction stories of the 50's would describe the
a space ship about to make the jump to light speed - and taking out his
slide rule to make the calculations. The microprocessor was unexpected and
it profoundly changed
is not an argument for believing in technological determinism. On the
contrary, I think that
the unpredictability of new technology gives a powerful reason for
thinking that the future is undetermined. It only seems determined to the
kind of mind which does not appreciate the originality and unknowable
consequences of new ideas.
is hard to ask the right questions when we think we already know the
answers to the wrong ones. Externalists and internalists both assume that
technology came into
being by an act of human will. They assume that technology was established
basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, defence, or transport.
perhaps we are begging a big question here. Was there ever such an
of technology? The argument resembles the 17th century idea that the origins
of government could be explained by assuming that men in the primitive natural
state made some kind of Social Contract and decided to establish the
course this 'Original Contract' of the old political theorists was
nonsense. Perhaps its is
equally unreasonable to assume that in some way, at some time, technology was
deliberately invented. Let us seek a different approach to our engineering
origins, and look for different
roots of technical inventiveness. Of course, we cannot ignore the
social context or the engineering content of what mankind has built, but
we must now try to get at the
human behaviour and motivation which underlie them.
Innate Technology - An Alternative Hypothesis
What if technology is not learned, but innate - a primary
activity in the most fundamental sense?
I began to reach this conclusion after many years of looking at history
from the wrong end.9 For a long time, I taught my students
about Henry Maudslay
(1771-1831) and his wonderful screw cutting lathe.10 I used to
explain how the precision of his machines led the way towards interchangeable
parts, mass production, and to
building skill into the machine instead of the worker. In other words,
Maudslay created some of the key elements of modern industrial production.
Then it at last struck me that
Maudslay made his lathe, with its accurate lead screw, by hand; and I
began to see him as what he was, one of the great eighteenth century
craftsman. The remarkable thing about Maudslay could not be the future -
he never saw it - but how he made himself the watershed between the
hand-craftsmanship of the past and the machines which began to replace it.
Then I began to wonder about his
clever hands and the brain that controlled them - what made human beings capable
of such craftsmanship? And thence I wandered into palaeontology, human
origins and the psychology of perception. What had happened in our
evolution to make us inventors and craftsmen?
quest to understand human origins has always been lively, especially now with
new insights from genetics and fresh fossil evidence. Our urgent curiosity
- for what question is more interesting? - leads us into speculation. The
dialogue crosses many
disciplines, with voices from palaeontology, microbiology, evolutionary
and many others. Despite the efforts and some remarkable field discoveries,
we have to admit that little is certain as yet.11 We do not
even know what
hand-axes were used for. Davidson and Noble think that they may only be
left over after the desired tools had been flaked off them. Calvin thinks
may have been a sort of thrown frisbee weapon. If there is no agreement
commonest artefact, which had a production run of over a million years,
then we are indeed
groping and guessing.12 Data exists; there is simply little
agreement about what it means. The
present paper uses published findings from these other disciplines
to suggest a single mechanism by which key human characteristics might have
emerged. The argument will focus on the cause of bipedalism and its
relationship to thing using,
suggesting how these may be related to creativity and the origins of
language. At least the hypothesis is simple, and it seems to fit the
the moment, let us consider only the minimalist viewpoint on what makes us
human. True, full
humanity is music and art, delight at the beauty of the world, poetry
and the joy of intellectual exploration. But the simplest characteristics
of humanity are that we are
bipeds, tool-users, and have language. Language and tool-using set
us apart from the rest of creation, and most authorities think bipedalism put us on that path. Some apes have the seeds of these talents but
comparative studies only emphasise how far ahead humans have moved
in tool-using and communication. Even
so, it is hard to look chimpanzees in the face when we know how
tantalisingly close they come to our attainments. What happened to make us
think most of us have been asking the wrong questions. We are not in the situation
of someone who has seen the last page of a detective story, and then knows
all the clues mean as he reads the book from the beginning. After all, the
constructed the plot and the clues with foreknowledge of what the end
People in history, and hominids in prehistory, did not know what the end
of the story
would be. Of course the past led to the present; but we shall not
necessarily find the
present in the past. A chicken does not look like an egg. It will be even harder
to imagine the minds of long extinct creatures.
question, 'Where did Maudslay get those hands and the brain that drove them?'
can only be answered by saying that we evolved that way. My dog Paddy is very
intelligent but it is unimaginable that he will ever make a lathe or build
a bridge. His brain is just not
organised to behave like this. From early childhood, human
beings enjoy using their hands or building towers from wooden blocks. If
we are to discuss how this character evolved, perhaps we should begin by
imagining the time scale.
Imagine that a millimetre represents a year. Then the
invention of writing is perhaps six
meters away; so on this scale all true history - meaning what is written -stretches
back only the length of a living room. For the first stone tools, we have
to go back 2 kilometres to early hominids who made them. From
modern man, Homo Sapiens, the ancestral line runs back, through Neanderthal and Homo
Erectus, to Homo Habilis - a
tool user with a brain only a third the size of ours. He was making primitive
stone chopper tools 2,000,000 years ago. That alone is enough to suggest that
tool-using is not just learnt, but part of our evolutionary make up.
we should go back further. Everybody who has tried to chip a flint nodule into
a useful tool knows that it is one of the most bloodyminded and fractious materials
in creation. It is impossible to believe that stone chopper tools,
primitive as they seem, were the
beginning. Only a creature which already knew the use of tools
- whether of horn, bone or wood - would be able to make them from stone.
If there is any doubt of this,
let the readers try to make a cutting edge from a pebble. They
will learn painfully how much is required in the way of visualisation and
Artefacts made from biological materials like wood or bone are unlikely to
survive or be recognised from such a remote past - but 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. If there were stone tools two
million years ago, then we can
infer that there were other tools for a long time before that. Even though
no earlier non-stone artefacts have been identified, we should leave our minds
open to the important possibility that things were being used and keep
hoping for evidence.
how far back should one go in the search for regular tool-using? Regular
need their hands free to use and carry things, so they have to be bipedal.
was a biped with an ape sized brain, 3.7 m.y.a.; so she could conceivably
tools. Before Lucy, there is practically no hominid fossil evidence. The
starting point could be the separation of the hominid line from the apes. Comparative
studies of DNA agree that the last common ancestor to chimp and man lived
about 5 m.y.a. Chimps are able to use things that come to hand, but they
are only occasional
bipeds. Given our genetic closeness, splitting of the chimpanzee / hominid
presents a promising point at which to look for what makes humans more
Two Legs - Some Theories Considered
This seems to be the silly season for
speculative theories about the cause of bipedalism, judging
from the frequency with which they have been appearing recently. They all have
to fit the scene which Yves Coppens describes so well - the drying of the Western
side of the Great Rift Valley in Southern Africa: and the fact that
chimpanzee remains are
concentrated to the west of the Rift; and hominid remains to the east.14
Apart from that, we have informed guess work.
hypothesis favoured by many has been Man the Mighty Hunter - the first hominid
who stayed in the plains when the forests receded, and went upright to run
faster, and to see prey
or dangers far off. But can we seriously believe that some newly
jumped-up biped had any significant speed advantage over the predators of
the savannah? Walking on two legs is mechanically difficult and requires
major changes in the
configuration of the bones and muscular actions used for locomotion. The
vertebrae have to become load bearing. According to Lovejoy, 'Lucy' must have
come at the end of a long evolution towards two leggedness.15
It seems improbable in the first stages
of the changeover that a new biped would have been faster than a quadruped.16 Human babies strive to stand
upright, but revert to crawling when
they are in a hurry. Scavenging, a less flattering image of our earlier
selves, is open to similar
objections. Hyenas and dogs are good scavengers without abandoning four leggedness. Scavenging is at best a partial explanation.
it was not speed, then what was the advantage of the new posture? Dean
to suggest that bipedalism was produced by the need to keep the brain
describes physical adaptations such as cooling holes in the cranium and
more exposed pathways for blood leaving the brain, and suggests that the
cooling was enhanced by
going upright. Better cooling would be needed by a creature which used
its brain more, especially when that brain grew larger. By the square-cube
law, the surface to volume
ratio becomes less favourable for cooling as the brain grows bigger. While one can see that a larger brain needed new cooling
mechanisms, it is begging the
question to argue that this was a cause of bipedalism. Surely the question
which needs to be asked is what new activity had led to greater
brain activity and the need for
cooling? Other large bipeds, like ostriches and kangaroos, are certainly not
noted for their brain-power - so what were the proto-hominids up to?
recent idea, from Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin,18 is that
apes stood upright as a display of aggression. Surely this again is a very
cause for such a difficult bodily transformation. Chimpanzees run social
aggression and all, without undergoing the discomforts of becoming
idea of bipedalism being an adaptation to the dry Savannah is challenged
by a watery hypothesis -
the Aquatic Ape who may have taken to the water, wading and
losing his hair in the process. Elaine Morgan suggests that this could
have taken place in the Rift Valley when it was an inland sea.19
The wader's buoyancy in water would
doubtless make uprightness easier. This hypothesis can also account for
the high position of the breasts
of the human female, and would explain a human nose which impedes
the entry of water. Her argument that the detailed development of the
human embryo suggests a return to the water is persuasive. Unlike any
other primate, it even has a
coating of wax (vernix caseosa) at birth.20 Like other mammals which
have returned to the sea, humans can control their breathing - a
prerequisite of speech. The 'aquatic ape' could certainly have enjoyed a
rich protein diet from shell fish and the long-chain molecules in
fish oils would favour the growth of nervous
Morgan hypothesis has the essential quality which others lack; it suggests
and major change of behaviour as the impulse towards bipedalism. Yet
aquatic ape is an attractive hypothesis, it does not account for the use
of tools or language.
Unless the salt deposits of the Rift Valley yield up real evidence,
ape must remain no more than an attractive idea.
Two Legs - An Alternative Suggestion
These different hypotheses all depend on a two
stage process to explain, first, why some apes became biped and then,
second, that their hands were free for tool using to
develop. But are two hypotheses necessary in the first place?
Let us consider a simpler possibility. Suppose instead that
bipedalism arose because the first
hominids were using their hands, which became too useful to waste on
knuckle walking. Suppose that they were holding useful things. The
proposition 'upright because of tools' is simpler than 'some reason for
upright; and then some reason
for tools.' After all, our close relatives the chimpanzees are capable of
a range of tools, like stones to crack nuts, straws to
winkle out termites, and sticks to reach
things. There is no fatal improbability in the idea that the first upright
steps and frequent hand-use began when the new hominid line started about 5
m.y.a. I have pointed out the difficulty of working flint, and that
it seems most likely that only a
creature which is already using things will have the motor skills to work
made stone tools, then, belong to a much later time. Many simpler things,
however, can be used to great effect. Plain pebbles can crack nuts and
or can be thrown as missiles. A dead animal offered, apart from its meat: shoulder
blades to dig with; a bladder to carry water; hard, pointed horns; gut; a jawbone
studded with teeth... and so on. Above all, it is necessary to imagine
there was in a stick. It can scrape and dig, revealing new food sources
like roots and bulbs;
for primates have nails not claws, so they are poorly fitted for digging.
The stick can extend the reach and knock down fruit and nuts. As a club it
is an energy storing weapon - other animals can only store energy
by charging at high speed.
Furthermore, like throwing stones or using a hammer, a club requires accurate
prediction of its curved path. There is no time for feed-back corrections,
and Calvin considers that this required more advanced neural capacities.21
And lastly, it might have made walking
easier for a learner-biped just as it does for an ageing
are not suggesting a craftsman tool-maker, an earlier claimant to be homo
a rough opportunist; homo bricoleur or thing user.22 He
did not even need an opposable thumb. The opposable thumb is important for the precision
grip in delicate operations, but the power grip is enough for grasping
sticks and stones. In any case, how would an opposable thumb have come about unless it had been
favoured with success? An essential feature to grasp about evolution is that a new
feature does not appear before it is used. The feature only improves because it
is already being used
successfully. This truth is encapsulated in the saying that 'Birds do not fly
because they have wings. Birds have wings because they fly.'
origins left other important legacies besides the useful hand. Our
of the primate line had acquired a particularly useful arm socket. Apes, unlike
monkeys, swing beneath branches and have a much wider arm movement -handy
for a prospective tool user. You can scratch behind your other ear;
Life in the trees also called for good binocular vision, our highly
of distance is based on a number of mental processes, not just
is affected by the familiar size of things, overlapping, even colour.23
Primates in trees
needed this three dimensional mental power to recognise things every which
way up. In fact, our
brains are very good at rotating things mentally to compare them.24
Even more important, the further up the primate line one looks, the more
we find a tendency to learning,
imitation and inventiveness.
The Thing Using Mind
Putting all these things together, we picture a creature with the
potential for seeing things in three dimensions, and eventually imagining
things it wanted to make. It was a creature which could adapt, not by physical
evolution, but by changing its function through what it held in its hands. People turn
into a different animal by picking up a hammer, a spade or a pen. In
general, other animals only achieve this by physical specialisation. Aardvarks and
badgers have powerful claws for digging; hoofed animals run fast and far, but they are condemned to grass
eating by their single purpose feet.
The first thing-user, however, has changed the rules radically, and
replaced physical adaptation by changing its behaviour and adopting proto-tools.
Perhaps this was the most strategically important step in the whole of
evolution, at least comparable to the evolution of the eye or the backbone.
we see shadows of all this in the games that make us happy. We like swinging
sticks, whether we call them golf clubs or baseball bats; we like
like droodles; we like games involving positional awareness, like chess
and draughts. Our thing user only had an ape-brain to direct its
new behaviour, but the subsequent development of that brain was driven by
tool using and what might be called inventive activity. If this were the
case then man did not invent technology: technology invented man.
what inventive behaviour needs. Some of its more obvious features are: a
need for abstraction in looking at things from a new point of view; a
three dimensional thought
which I will call Spatial Logic; an ability to form patterns, including
creative ones. Take these one by one.
important psychological implications. We can suppose that thing user
a primate brain, well capable of three dimensional perception. But in the new
behaviour things were no longer perceived in the same way as they were in
a state of nature. A dog perceives a stone as a mere object. Thing
using demands a different
kind of perception. Thing user has to think abstractly - if it
wants to crack a shell, it is the hardness and heaviness and shape of the
stone that make the brain see
it as a hammer. Swinging a stick involves its stiffness, hardness, length
and weight; also a second order effect,
that the end of the stick travels further and faster than the arm swinging
it. Using things - stones, sticks, bones - implies a process of abstraction; because we are using the thing's qualities as we perceive
them, and these are not the
same as its original identity in nature.
other day I was standing in a muddy ditch at Wortley Top Forge, and I wanted
to clean earth off a stone; I glanced round, and found a root - straight
and strong enough to scrape with. My mind had abstracted qualities -
straightness and hardness
- which were unrelated to root, the part of a tree that sits under the
mental act took place without words - readers will know what it feels like
to look round the garden shed for a piece of scrap material that will do
There is also an intentionality that
selects and shapes our perceptions. If I pick up a stone to use it as a
hammer, it has become a hammer in my mind first. A stone becomes a hammer
not only because I abstract the qualities of hardness, heaviness and
shape which fits my hand, but because I want to hit something. A stick
things in the mind according to desire: digger, pointer, walking aid, club
is our perception, not the stick that changes. Thing user also has
to make a mental pattern,
akin to a gestalt perception, of what it wants to do. This is a creature
taken a new path, replacing physical specialisation by the behavioural
an omnivore in novel conditions. This was the crucial step thing user took
from the apes. Physical evolution continued, but not towards physical
specialisation for a particular niche and
diet. Instead it was adapting brain and body to respond to problems by what might
be called proto-technical means.
The insights of gestalt psychology and work like
R.L.Gregory's on perception show how
powerfully the brain processes the inputs from our eyes to give meaningful
vision.25 When one is looking for cepe mushrooms
in a French wood, they are difficult
to see at first, but an experienced French person can recognise them in an
uncanny way. Interpreters of aerial photographs develop similar skills. We
are a pattern making animal. However, with invention we are not only dealing
with the perception of the
outside world, but a further stage, the creation of new patterns.
not only perceive things in three dimensions; we can also imagine new
things. Our brain can
rotate objects mentally, literally turning things over in the mind, to see
whether two things seen from different angles are identical.26
Technical creativity requires this kind of spatial imagination,
and Brooke Hindle points out that many
inventors - from Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci in the Italian
Renaissance to Robert Fulton
and Samuel Morse, in the 19th century - were also artists.27
This is an attractive idea but it does not stand up so well in the case of
England, a country short on
artists but strong in engineers. Maudslay, Nasmyth, Watt, Whitworth, Clement
and Parsons had splendid spatial imaginations but no artistic training. Nasmyth
attached particular importance to Euclidean geometry, though admittedly artists
like Brunelleschi were the first to formalise it into the rules of
geometrical perspective in painting. Whether the spatial imagination is
manifested in fine art, geometry
or engineering, it seems likely that it owed a lot to the early hominid
mind looking at a thing, and
dealing with it as a spatial abstraction. Geometry, painting and invention cannot grow in minds that are not predisposed to abstract
feature associated with spatial logic is the awareness of how materials behave.
Most people are not conscious of how much they know about materials. We know,
without ever verbalising the thought, that we cannot push a piece of
brain can instantly call up the different sensations of breaking a
the more brittle unyielding way a stick of chalk snaps. Children can be
these things about materials before they learn to talk - adults call it
sense of forces is also highly developed. We easily apply the right force
to cracking a walnut, tightening a tiny screw, or smashing a big stone
with a sledgehammer.
Adolescents know how to close a door quietly, and also how to make a statement
by slamming it. As Petroski says, "We are all engineers of sorts, for
we have all the principles of machines and structures in our bones... We
calculate the paths
of our arms and our legs with the computer of our brain, and we catch
footballs with more dependability than the most advanced weapons systems
intercept missiles."291 am not suggesting that we are born
with the knowledge, but that our brains are organised to learn it very quickly. The word logic is
used to imply that our
wordless conceptions form a conclusion just as necessarily as the steps
of Aristotelian logic do. Let the readers try a simple mental experiment,
by visualising a tent pole and guy ropes. Do they see that three guy ropes
will keep a tent pole upright? - you wiggle it in your head and feel that it will
stand. We already have the
phrase 'To see with the mind's eye.' We need another one, 'To feel with
the mind's hand.'
comes when we apply our abstractions and spatial logic in a new situation.
If the kitchen door keeps blowing open and a woman puts down a brick to keep
it shut, then she has been creative; for bricks exist to build houses
with, not shut doors. Creativity is not
verbalised, not voluntary, but something which we do spontaneously. It is important to remember that all human minds are
creative in this sense, and that individuals like Watt and Faraday are
more gifted but not essentially different
from the rest of us.
is no explanation yet of what happens when a new idea comes. At first sight
it seems paradoxical to imagine a neurological algorithm for producing new
ideas. It contradicts the idea that creativity is unpredictable. Yet,
logically, we have to consider
that, when a creature adopts variable techniques or innovation as its adaptive
strategy, presumably a genetically based capacity for creative thought
must be a part of its
equipment. If there were innate neural algorithms for creativity, then I
suspect that they would include the capacities to abstract, see patterns,
and apply metaphors from one
field to another.30
A. Schon in his work on invention saw the transfer of metaphor as a
of invention - that we take a concept from one field and apply it in
can happen at a very concrete level - the Inuits use a seal paw to scratch
the ice near a hole, to simulate the sound of a seal and allay the fears
of their prey. It is easy to
think of many other examples of human beings copying or using the
behaviour of an animal.
craftsmanship are not the same thing. In much later times craftsmen come
to the fore - the masons, goldsmiths or cabinet makers who set the style
of a civilisation. Thing using is cruder and more opportunistic. We
all know people who do not blush to use a sharp wood chisel as a
screw-driver and I have watched with horror an antique pistol butt being
used as a hammer. I meet a lot of Exploratory inventors
from other countries, and I am struck by the way they will adapt things, say
in a DIY shop or a workshop store, to their own purposes, well away from
the original function of the thing. They bore holes in plastic plates to
make wheels and use
empty ball-pens to make Cartesian divers that bob up and down in a bottle
of water. These are people who have never met each other before, yet their
similar. Homo Sapiens as craftsman comes later - we begin with homo
thing user, and
he is still around. His competitive habitat is the Egg Race.
course creativity is influenced by culture and circumstances or individual
ability. New situations seem to trigger
it - one only has to consider how the coming of
railways called forth a flood of creative new bridge structures after
1830;32 or how nearly all the modern machine tools appeared in a few decades after
1800.33 Perhaps there are mechanisms in the brain by which new
situations, new problems, new
dangers switch on our creativity. But equally, culture (including
education) can also inhibit
creativity. Scholars are generally agreed that the mandarin system in China saw that innovation could destabilise society, so it put a stop to
it. There is a story that a
sheep in Wales learned that it could pass a cattle grid by lying down and rolling
across. The whole flock was quickly slaughtered before this undesirable behaviour
could be passed on to other sheep.
If this view of the origins of
technology and creativity is correct, then we did not invent
technology. Technology invented us. Its true nature is not the assembly of
built by mankind, or the collected knowledge of all the fields of
is an element of human nature like sex and the drive to eat. Thus we see
it not as something
invented by society to clothe, feed and shelter us; but rather a stream
back to our emergence as a species. There was no sudden beginning of
more than there was a founding of society by some Original Compact -
there, again like our chimpanzee cousins, we were a social animal and
evolved ways of getting
user is necessarily
creative. In adapting to new niches or challenges, he has
replaced physical change by technical response. Dawkins says that
evolution is blind;34
we must add that technology is mind. Sometimes writers speak loosely of the evolution of technology35 but technology is not an entity
which can evolve. Artefacts do
not reproduce themselves, or pass on favourable mutations. It is easy to slip
into thinking like that when we look at the development of the aeroplane,
from the Wright Flier to Concorde, or the line leading from ENIAC
to the Personal Computer. But we are
really speaking of the results of our creative thinking, for technology
is exclusively a product of the brain's inventiveness. This universal human
creativity is the force that takes a raw material or an existing
invention, and changes or
Language is the other great defining
characteristic of humanity, along with the bipedalism and tool using which I have
already suggested are linked. What if language and thing using are linked as
well? Once more, for this argument, a minimalist view of language is
enough for our purposes. We must pass by the fascinating discussion about
whether we can trace the existing tongues of mankind back to an original language,36
since we are concerned with what happened before language existed. Let
Chomsky's basic ideas serve for a rough working definition of language and
then try to see how our
'thing user' might acquire such a thing.
is universal. Chomsky points out how easily young human children learn
language. They learn not only to separate strings of phonemes into words, but
they discover the rules of syntax as well. The child finds out for itself
that nouns and verbs work in
different ways. They quickly arrive at a competence in dealing
with deep structures which are hard to express in simple rules. In
Chomsky's own example, quite a young child will turn 'The man who
is tall is in the room' into the
question form 'Is the man who is tall in the room?' This transformation needs
structural understanding, not mechanical rules, to move the second 'is' to
the beginning of the sentence. 'Chomsky
maintains that it is only by assuming that
the child is born with a knowledge of the highly restrictive principles of
universal grammar, and the predisposition to make use of them in
analysing the utterances he hears about him, that we can make any sense of the process
language is universal and the brain is not a 'general purposes' machine
endowed with universal grammar, can this lead to any hypothesis about
the earlier functions of this form of thought?
for a common grammar set up neurally in the brain are often based on complex
linguistic structures, like transformations and markers.38
Perhaps we should look
at simpler structures in considering language origins. One can reasonably suppose
that simple statements preceded complex subordinate clauses. All human languages
have verbs and nouns, and have statements with the general form subject
verb + object.39 Individual
languages have varying devices for expressing this. In English the word
order tells us whether the man or the dog is biting or bitten; in inflected
languages like Russian and Latin, the word endings tell us which is
subject or object. Despite the variety, the underlying grammar is the same
and -as Chomsky puts it - a Martian would think that we all speak the same
language. After all, though it may seem the obvious one to us, is it the
only basic structure a language might adopt? Human beings can learn other
human languages and can think in them. But could there be languages we are
not adapted to think in?40
Human beings use language creatively. Chomsky points out that even young
language creatively, in the sense that they form meaningful, correct
they have never heard before. Every day we make new sentences out of our grammar
and vocabulary. Indeed, these can generate an infinite number of different
If this is a fair account of Chomsky,
then language closely resembles the 'thing using'
discussed earlier. I suggest that the mental machinery for producing
language does not originate in communication, but in the mental faculties
the evolution of the thing using brain. (Perhaps there was a
of gesture). Now let us compare the characteristics which Chomsky gives
with the those needed by the thing using brain.
have tried to show that the 'thing user' has to abstract, and that
the concepts in this abstract thinking can exist in non-verbal form. But
words are labels we apply to concepts
we have abstracted. When we grope for a word, we are seeing that the
thought must exist before the word. The propensity for 'thing using' is
universal among humans.
So, says Chomsky, is language. Another feature common to tool use
and language is creativeness - the ability to apply the abstractions,
shapes, forces and materials,
in new contexts. Lastly, I suggest, the syntax of Chomsky's universal
grammar is closely parallel to wordless thing using thought.
Subject (somebody / something) + verb (action / what a tool does /
operation) and perhaps object (the thing that is operated on, changed or
argument is left at the simplest level, that the subject-verb-object seems
like the thought of a
simple 'thing user'. R. Wallace explored a similar idea, relating areas
in the brain known to support language with adjacent areas that provide
our ability to map territory.
He suggests that there is a link here with the brain's ability to provide markers, and to embed clauses in complex statements.42
It seems to me that Wallace is
considering linguistic forms that would appear later in language development.
It is easier to believe that language was originally grafted onto simpler structures. Then, once the process started, it could spread to all the
accessible functions of the
brain. Such spreading of the language activity through the brain may have taken
place over a long period. Thing using, being parallel to the
simplest grammatical forms,
seems a likely place to start.
There are good evolutionary precedents
for this proposed transformation of organs, from
one function to another. The mammals' air-breathing lung evolved from the
swim bladder of fish. Fish fins have ended up as human arms and hands, and
bats' wings started off the same way too.
clues point the same way. The neural motor areas for speech lie next to
the right hand's zone, and we gesture with that hand when we talk - that
is we use it for communication
as well as for manipulation. Right-handed musicians can finger with their
left hand, but they find it much harder to conduct with the wrong hand,
the right hand is the instrument of the individual's conceptions and
possible process has been suggested by which this kind of parallel
neurological equipment might evolve. J. M. Allman and J. H. Kaas have
suggested that cortical areas
can replicate themselves, and that the new areas can assume new functions
while the original area continues to perform its initial task.44
use simple tools, but their voice organs do not let them talk. They can
however be taught to communicate by sign language, but this happens under
artificial conditions, not in the wild. It therefore seems most unlikely
that this brain function,
supporting the unspoken language, could have evolved for communication. But
it could derive from the thing using which they share with
ourselves. If so, it supports the suggestion that the brain functions used
in human language did not originate
for communication, but in thing using.
'thing using' being forced to explain too many things here? In
nature, a mono-functional
behaviour often leads to multiple adaptations. Because it flies, the bird has evolved feathers, light cellular bones, as well as an aerodynamic
shape and a 'retractable
undercarriage'. The ocean environment led to similarly extensive changes in
dolphins and whales. Limbs became fins or flippers; the skin, the shape,
the breathing, the diet - all
changed as they adapted from being land to sea mammals. In the case of
human evolution, attention focuses more on brain function and behaviour than
on physical form; but the similar principle can apply, that simple causes
led to multiple complex
using games and perception jokes like droodles have already been
speculatively, one might consider the possibility that the origins of
magic lie in
the link between thing using and language in the brain. Magic is
universal among primitive
and not so primitive peoples - pronouncing the right incantations makes things
happen. In many cultures, names for things and people have a far deeper significance
than mere labels for communicating ideas and become taboo words. Might
this be an atavistic extension of the thing user's thought
processes into the later age of verbal consciousness? If words were descended from tools
and their use, this could
explain the urge to use words themselves to make things happen.
Speculating further, if the
likeliest early tool was the stick, then at a deep level of displacement we have the prototype magic wand.
formal logic - from Aristotle to Descartes and Hegel - we certainly see
used as a tool, a making of conclusions by means of words alone. If we
language logic is a weaker implement than spatial logic. Aristotle's logic
nothing new that was not already implicit in the premises; as for Hegel's
logic -his dialectic led
to anything he wanted us to believe. This is not to say that Hegel had no
perceptive insights; but one can jettison all the paraphernalia of thesis,
antithesis, and synthesis - and the
insights remain. By contrast, a good house-builder senses
wordlessly where a beam is needed to strengthen an opening in a wall, or which
wall bears loads. What he does is effective as well as logical - which is
more than can be claimed for
most verbal arguments. Fortunately for word users, arguments do
not usually collapse with the same disastrous consequences as defective
Some Implications of the Thing Using Mind
Let us summarise the main features of thing
using and Spatial Logic before looking at some implications these have
for the way we think about engineering and other broader issues.
is still not much more than 'a table top of fossils' so the hominid story between
five and two million years ago remains sketchy and speculative. The 'thing
using' hypothesis is simple but it seems to fit the data we have at present from
the disciplines investigating human origins.45 It explains
bipedalism more simply, by deriving it simply from to need to
liberate hands for thing using. The new
activity required the brain to work more. The substantial part of the
modern human brain which is
dedicated to the hands supports the suggestion that brain enlargement
was substantially driven by technology.46 Surely creativity was
a necessary part of the new
mental activity. Finally, thing using thought could have
set up the neurological mechanisms in the brain upon which language might
if the early 'thing using' hypothesis should turn out false, the
following 2 million years of tool using certainly coincided with a massive
growth of the brain. This
fact, that the human brain has roughly tripled in size since the first
tools appeared, does suggest that the brain is particularly adapted to
activity. Tool using is as universal as language, sex and eating - and nobody
would suggest that those are not genetically based.
hypothesis also raises a question about the initial impetus towards the
new activity. Evolution
is good at explaining why something that already exists gets better
- why flyers become better flyers, lions become better predators, and
zebras get better at running
away from lions. But this does not tell us what triggers off the initial
direction of specialisation in the first place. What set ancestral badgers
off digging and fleas biting? These are the creative moments of
evolution if it is true that
specialised organs follow behaviour. It is not enough to point to a new
niche as the sufficient cause
of new behaviour. The response to that new niche could have taken many
other forms. Among wild variety of plant and animal adaptation, one sees
many which are unique in the sense of being unusual, but they are not
unique in the sense of being
the only possible solution.
technology, likewise, the quasi-evolutionary stages of improvement in
battleships, computers or ploughs can be followed easily. But the initial creative
moment is elusive - the one we cannot 'unthink'. Obviously the new
a problem - but why that solution and not some other? Equally, in
is easier to follow the stages of new 'hardware' and we skip the question
about the origin
of the behaviour that led to it.
Such questions remain useful whether thing
using appeared 2,000,000 or 5,000,000 years ago. The new perspective of seeing
technology as an innate propensity changes our view of yet more questions. Cultural or
economic forces remain important in studying technology, but perhaps the innatist ideas linked with thing
using could lead to new insights.
It will be a truer image if we see human technology as having a dual
nature, both cultural and innate. It is partly cultural, different if the
individual grows up in France, Japan or Polynesia; and partly innate, a non-verbal
and creative element of being
other species perform quasi-technical activities, like birds and insects building
nests or beavers constructing dams. Tailor birds really do sew leaves;
really make little houses for themselves. It is not quite safe to say
that, in the animal kingdom, the specific and unvarying character of such
activity shows that it is
instinctual rather than inventive. Termites use new materials like
plastics in their nests;
blue tits have learned to peck through aluminium milk bottle tops. All one
is, yes, it is true, but human beings have made invention a habitual
the other species do it occasionally.
is not just our western technology. We must not be misled by the huge
thrust which science, mathematics and social organisation have given to
western invention, into thinking
that this is the only viable way by which human beings adapt to their habitat. Concern for the environment is making western
direction seem more doubtful - even worrying - and there may be something to
learn from other cultures which have achieved a sustainable balance over
long ages. In any case, it will
always be worth remembering that inventiveness and 'thing using'
are not special to any
culture but a part of human nature.
dual nature, both innate and cultural, explains why it is found in every
human culture, and is a
prime means by which the group survives in its environment. Questions
about the emergence of different cultures, the races, the languages and
how much of this was the work of Homo Sapiens Sapiens, come later than the
conjectural 'thing using' of Lucy's ancestor. It is illuminating to
go round a good museum of
ethnology, in London, Paris or Cambridge, or the great Pitt Rivers in
Oxford, to see the ingenuity and flavour of other cultures, and the
mysterious sense of their style
persisting through time.
seems to me that we can look at things made before the great expansion of western
technology, and tell where they were made, but not when. Looking at a 20th
century artefact, we can say when it was made, but not where. Every
part of Asia had its own fighting
knives, and one immediately recognises yataghans, Cossack shashkas,
Indonesian kris or Japanese swords though they might have been made at any
time over the last thousand years. A four thousand year old Chinese bronze
looks Chinese even today. But
now, design has converged and it is not the place of origin but the date
we recognise. There is no mistaking the sit of a 1950's motor car, or the
look of a 60's TV or refrigerator - but they could have been made
anywhere. Design - or rather
technique - has largely become international. France is more retentive
of its culture than most nations, but shall we ever see another 2CV?
Today's little Peugeots and
Renaults, even the Citroens, look like Fiestas and Metros. As manufacturing
grows more competitive, with too many cars being made, it will be interesting
to see where designs converge or diverge, perhaps showing parallels to evolution.
culture is powerful but we find things in other cultures which we could
of ourselves. The Inuits, formerly called Eskimos, based their whole
materials from the seals and other creatures they hunted, for they had
little stone or wood. A modern engineer marvels at their boats (bones and
seal skin), or fishing tools,
or powerful bows backed with sinew, or the way they make anoraks from walrus
gut. This ingenuity is to be found in every culture that has not been
debased.48 In our own culture, we have lost a great
deal. There are not four people left in Sheffield
- that great home of cutlery - who can hand forge a blade. Populations in western
countries can become de-skilled in one generation. Craftsmen and engineers
used to know a hundred different
timbers and where best to use them; but my modern engineering
students cannot tell me which wood to use for tool handles. They
do not know that ash is shock resistant, or that oak splits easily, but
elm doesn't (that's why we use
it for the seats of Windsor chairs - they do not split when the pegs are
driven in).49 A whole folk knowledge has been lost. Human
culture is fluid and
unpredictable and we should wonder what will happen to it as craftsmanship
that all this is right - that we have evolved as tool users, with a brain adapted
to learning forces and materials through our hands, and capable of three-dimensional
thought. Suppose, too, that this development of the brain is linked to our
creativity, and that language does not control, but merely reflects the
deeper levels of thought. You have only to reflect a moment to see how far
technology has diminished our
skills. Artisans have become mere assemblers of factory made elements -
this is true of car-makers, plumbers, electricians, and printers. This
article can be set for printing from my floppy disk, and my computer replaces
typesetting skills learnt
formerly by long apprenticeship. In the 1960's, my first publisher, warned
me that it would cost a guinea
to alter a single comma in the proofs.
are the logical consequences of those first steps. Technology or technique
is liberating us from physical necessity in the same way that thing
using freed us from physical specialisation.50 Technology
is a form of liberation. It has freed us from many kinds of drudgery, like washing dishes and
cleaning dirty fire-grates. Writing
freed our memories; transport has freed us from our legs. Yet it is not a simple
matter. Computers free the brain from a lot of boring tasks: but virtual
reality frees it from reality - which may not turn out to be so good.
These are questions that we should face now. Evolution shows clearly that 'If you want to keep it,
use it!' Otherwise you lose it,
as with the atrophying of the ostrich's wings or the human appendix.
What if technology is freeing humanity from skills and aptitudes that we should
retain, that make us essentially human? One can imagine culture having a
long term evolutionary effect without descending into the heresy of
is interesting to speculate for a moment about the way the culture shapes
engineering. If there was ever a language of spatial logic, then it was
The West's continuous technological rise coincided with Geometry's
rediscovery in the mini-Renaissance of the 12th century. It still
astonishes many people that such an apparently abstract deductive system
fits the world so well, describing
levers, elliptical orbits, the six-sidedness of honeycomb alveoles, or
trusses in structures, one shows that triangles are rigid - can not
wriggle to another shape - but that a four sided figure is not rigid. Old
time engineers would often
produce an answer by geometry rather than calculation, getting a square
root for instance by drawing a construction based on a semicircle. This
spatial way of doing
mathematics suits some people better than the maths based on numbers and algebra.
In my experience, students studying the aesthetics of design are often
spatially than with numerical symbols. They find Galileo's geometrical
demonstrations easier to follow than the algebraic sort of explanation.
Yet are even geometry and drawing on
paper a constraint on our thought? Do we limit ourselves to the design of things which
we can geometrise and make on our geometrical machines? Could the
engineers we train in modern methods design the
Fig. 3. Tripod stool.
Indian folding tripod (see Fig. 3)
which is carved from one piece of wood? My own attempts to copy it showed
me that the shapes are very subtle -1 fabricated one from dowel
and square section wood, and it just lay flat. Only then did I appreciate
curves and angles of the original. It exists, so it must be rational, yet
that our methods of design cannot produce it. Perhaps our way of reasoning
limits on our thought which we are not aware of.
interest in the nature of three dimensional thinking led me to construct a
solid version of Escher's Impossible
Staircase (see Fig. 4). It was a deliberate attempt to
explore the difference between thinking in two and three dimensions. I
found it impossible to imagine a
3D form by distorting the flat image on the paper. I tried to imagine
the paper folding over to give horizontal steps, for instance, and could
not do it. With the rules of
perspective we can reduce three dimensions to two. However, it does not work the other way. We cannot make a unique three
dimensional form from a two dimensional image - there is an infinity of
possibilities (though not all probable
ones.) The problem is compounded, of course, if the two dimensional source
is irrational like the Escher.
When I finally persuaded my brain to work effectively, I can only describe the sensation as clicking from two dimensions to
three. Perhaps we do not think
enough about the difference between perceiving in three dimensions, and
thinking in them; perhaps we do too much on two dimensional paper.
the model gave me an interesting insight into one of the problems of teaching
creativity. Creativity has many parameters. One of them is to do something
with what one has already got - a straightforward application of design
a deeper creativity is to do something that one cannot do with the
to find new ways to do something. These are the things that might usually
be described as impossible.
Fig 4. Impossible staircase based on
the drawing by M.C. Escher. Photo: Peter Fisher.
It is important to recognise that there are different forms
of impossibility. One sort of impossible
is set by the limits of nature. It really does seem impossible thermodynamically
to get more energy out of a system than it contains, so engineers are
very suspicious of any claims to perpetual motion. But another sort of
'impossible' depends on other
constraints, the ones we impose on ourselves in a system that wedefine.
We make arbitrary rules that define some things as impossible. It is
impossible to built a ship that
floats or a 'plane that flies using Meccano - but that is a characteristic
of that construction system, not a law of nature. Creativity
depends partly on recognising what is considered impossible because of the
real laws of nature and what is thought
impossible because of an arbitrary system or assumption. Here again,
is the importance of, not just knowing, but knowing about what we know.
of our thinking is two dimensional, and seldom gets beyond the three
dimensional level of a side, elevation and plan drawing. There are not
many three dimensional
mechanisms - most, like Watt's linkage, are plane solutions. The differential,
like the one in the ancient Chinese South-facing Chariot, is a beautiful
exception. The idea did not appear in the West until the nineteenth
century. Yet it cannot be described in words. Let any reader who does not
know the differential's motions
ask an engineer how it works. It cannot even be sketched without imagining
the paper rotating end over
builders of Gothic cathedral vaults were also high order three dimensional
thinkers but I do not
think that they could make drawings of their vaulting. The French
military engineer Vauban was another able 3D thinker. In all his works the
shapes and dimensions of the
bastions, tenailles, demilunes and outworks vary. Briangon, in the
broken country of the French Alps, is perhaps the masterpiece - it is
hard to depict even though it exists - in three dimensions. What was it
like to think it out in three
dimensions from a standing start? Among engines, I would nominate the
little known Bishopp engine for its three dimensionality. Its inward facing
truncated cones and swashing disc take some people a long time to figure out.51
can this three dimensional thinking be taught, when we do so much on paper?
It seems to be an intuitive rather than analytical process. Do we,
perhaps, limit our thinking to what we
can analyse? It is, of course, easier to teach what we can
analyse.52 Without wishing to provoke engineers, I wonder
whether any of them have failed to follow up an idea because they could not see what
equations to use to design it
theoretically? (Newton had to invent the calculus to describe his
intuition about gravity and the orbits of satellites - but plainly the
intuition had come to him first.)
Maybe we should see things differently and start, not from the equations,
but from a mental picture.
have to remember that whether we describe a thing in words or numbers, our
is not the same as the thing itself. Whatever my analytical or intuitive ideas
are about an arch, they are not the same as that arch and miss some truth
'real thing'. This was brought home to me when I built a model beam out of
of small rectangles of plywood, held together by rubber cords running
It formed a beam when its ends rested on two bricks, and it bent when a
weight was put
on the middle. I only intended the model to show that bending, and I could
have written a computer
programme to show it happening on the screen. But then I put the
weight nearly at the end of the beam, and instead of bending, the blocks
slipped past each other. This
is another kind of failure known as shear. If I had not put shear into
the computer programme, it would not have shown me that effect. In other words,
my conceptual model would not have been as good as the physical model.
course analytical methods are important and valuable. But we should
sometimes we assume that a thing cannot be done because we cannot
Fig. 5. Wobbly Arch. The faces of the blocks are curved so the arch
wobbles to a different equilibrium when the weight is added. In both cases, the thrust
of the arch runs where the blocks touch.
it first. Perhaps, sometimes, we
should do the thing by trial and error and then tackle the
analysis. It is, after all, possible to make things before the analytical
designing them exist. This picture of a 'wobbly arch' is an example (see
The blocks forming the arch are curved, so that it rolls to different
shapes as varying
loads are placed upon it. A big concrete version has been built for
walk over it - but it was designed empirically from models. So far as I
know, no theoretical
method exists at present for designing the shapes of the blocks.
we could take this bow shape as a philosophical model of the problem (see
Fig. 6). If we shoot an arrow with it, it becomes a beam and a stored
energy problem. Use it to rotate a shaft, and it becomes a fire maker -
the problem will be defined in terms of pressures and friction. Now make
it a flint tipped drill and the dimensions of cutting speeds and angles
take over. Add a bridge and sounding box and it becomes ancestral to the
plucked and bowed musical instruments like zithers and
violins. This time, you will measure the tension and length of the string
and the frequency
of vibration. Stand it another way, and it explains the principle of the bow-string
girder. Plainly, those different ideas about the function of the bow
like these are the units or coinage of our spatial logic. They are the sort
of things we shuffle in our minds when we are mulling over a design
and the optimisation of designs come later. When we invent, we think with
these building blocks and they exist as concepts before we apply numbers
Perhaps this is where the new Hands-on exploratories have something to
offer the budding engineer. Our
civilisation is becoming poorer in some respects: in tactile experience;
in three dimensional perception and thought; in direct experience of
shapes, materials, forces and other phenomena. What sensations does a
child in a block of flats,
spending its time before a television set, get to satisfy the inputs which our brain has evolved to need?
Children are escaping into the world of
their computers. Instead of reacting with the physical environment, they
play 'Civilisation' or the shoot-'em-up game 'Doom'. As
virtual reality develops, the new artificial environment is offering false
a brain which has evolved to let us cope with reality. Our brain's
accuracy of perception
and understanding has been essential to our survival. It is true that
devices are of great value in training pilots and giving preliminary
all sorts of difficult tasks. But now computers can offer a harlot's
without responsibility. Where is the philosophy to let us understand that gigabits alone will never make
the qualitative change from information to understanding? Civilisation has always
brought a contradiction between the artificial and the natural, and if the
civilisation breaks down then the natural wins - it is possible to see Jean Jacques Rousseau and the ancien
regime in France in that light. Perhaps 'hands on' learning may help
to restore a healthier sense of reality. The exploratories, by offering direct experience, real phenomena
in an atmosphere of play, may turn out
to be even more valuable than their founders hoped, in supplying a
sense of phenomena and richness of experience, to counteract the
electronic Babel.55 We have all seen Tom and Jerry films where Tom walks over a cliff and
does not start falling until he understands his predicament. Virtual
reality games like Doom take us
even further into an environment of false reality. Uncorrected errors
augment misunderstanding, like
the rumours which breed panic. Too much exposure to uncheckable electronic
false reality could have analogous effects. The errors in cybernetic terms
would take the form of positive feed-back.
This paper has suggested that
technology has to be understood as an innate human faculty
as well as the cultural phenomenon which we commonly see. Even creativity,
logically seen as unpredictable, may be an unconscious process preprogrammed
into the brain and necessary to a creature which came to rely on behavioural
adaptation rather than physical. This is a complex phenomenon, but a key
characteristic appears to be the capacity to think in three dimensions,
about materials and forces. This process is logical although it is not
verbal or symbolic.
is little understood outside the members of the profession, and many English
people confuse it with science. Certainly, it is not as effectively
science. Perhaps the non-verbal thinking which has been described above
engineers are notoriously bad communicators. It is just not possible to
represent the Spitfire,
the Volkswagen Beetle, or the Forth rail bridge adequately in words. Yet
I would maintain that these classics, and also their lesser brethren like
clothes props, door bolts or sash windows, are as logical as any
proposition in Aristotelian or
Boolean form. One could go further, and say that some of the concepts in engineering
are as beautiful and original as great poems or pictures. This is seldom
recognised in Britain, and this is a sad misperception. For our culture
has not made technology a part of itself.
history of technology is more visual and tactile than most other sorts of
history and you cannot do it without getting your hands dirty, getting a
feel for things.
Yet if the thinking of the engineer is as creative as literature or art,
we should be asking
ourselves why technology has not entered our general culture -why
the average person knows the names of Beethoven, Van Gogh and Shakespeare,
but not Newcomen, Parsons or
Maudslay. Engineering could be one of the great liberal educations.
For me, trained as I was in history and languages, finding out how Watt's engine worked, and how Robert Stephenson thought out the
Britannia Bridge, was like coming upon the treasures of Aladdin's Cave.
Engineering is too good for engineers - too few of them appreciate
the richness of their subject.
we see engineering as a natural function, not just an activity created by
the needs of our own particular
society, then we have an opportunity to explore its links with
our biological origins and with other cultures. This point of view may
also help us to build a better chain of learning for children, a gentler transition
from their first toys to more
mature mathematical and theoretical competence.
have talked a great deal about evolution, but I think we must always
it is humanity's thought, not technology itself, which evolves. Evolution
technology is mind - but my argument also implies that it may be the nonverbal
subconscious mind. How can we give that non-verbal quality a fair chance
educational system that is so dominated by written examinations? How can
we give the true value
to three dimensional creative thought in an educational and economic
system that chiefly rewards symbol users? In biological terms it is
tempting to think of the
accountants and other symbol users in industry as having moved up the
food chain like carnivores, leaving the engineers - creators - as
herbivores to be lived off.
is our human mind which perceives and responds to the environment - so we
have the externalists' context; and it designs things creatively - so we
have the internalists' content.
But most important, our heritage from the Prehistoric Engineer is
creative invention which cannot be predicted, so that the future is free
and undetermined. Perhaps Artificial Intelligence will one day replicate
these functions, but until that
possibility becomes more than philosophical speculation, it is the human
mind's creativity that stands between us and extinction.
I am indebted to many colleagues and
students over the years for ideas and criticism, both in Britain and France. I would
particularly like to thank my wife Linda, Professor Max
Hammerton of Newcastle, Professor Richard Gregory of Bristol, Dr James
Stangroom (inventor), Marion Haywood, and my late uncles Douglas and
both inventor engineers.
to the author from the Librarian of the Seeley Historical Library,
Cambridge, in 1959.
C. Forman (1995), The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, Souvenir
Press, pp. 18-19, gives some of
3Manfred Korfman, (October 1973), The Sling as a Weapon, Scientific
American, vol. 229 pages 34-42.
"Hanson, N. R. (1958). Patterns of Discovery, Cambridge
University Press, 14.
'Evans, F.T., (January 1981): Roads, Railways and Canals: Technical
Choices in 19* Century Britain.
Technology and Culture, Vol.
22, pp. 26-34.
6W, Kingston, (1977), The Creative process in Human
Progress, John Calder. Kingston offers valuable insights into the relationship between creative thinking and the process
'Alan Smith, Engines Moved by Fire and Water, Transactions of the
Newcomen Society. Vol. 66,1994 -1995,
ppl-25. A useful account of the work done by others, notably Denis Papin,
on early steam power.
8Hobbes, T. Leviathan; John Locke, Treatises on
Government; 3. J. Rousseau, Social Contract.
'I was guilty of whiggery as described in Professor Herbert
Butterfield's book The Whig Interpretation of History (Cambridge University Press, 1931). The book
criticises the tendency to judge past events from a later standpoint. In his words, 'What is discussed is the tendency of
many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been
successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the
ratification if not the glorification of the present.'
F. T. 'The Maudslay Touch'. Transactions of the Newcomen Society. Vol.
"Roger Lewin: Bones of Contention. Penguin 1989
12Ingold, T., (1993), 'Tools, Techniques
and Technology' in Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution,
K. R. Gibson and T. Ingold, Cambridge, pp 337-338.
a general background to the topic of tools and language Lewin and Gibson
and Ingold (vide supra) give a valuable picture. An older but impressive
work is A. Leroi Gourhan Le Geste et La Parole (1964), translated
as Gesture and Speech, M.I.T. Press 1993. Another seminal work is
the short Man the Toolmaker by Kenneth Oakey,
"Yves Coppens. (1994 May). East
Side Story: The Origin of Humankind. Scientific American, vol. 270,
15Lovejoy, C. Owen. (1988 Nov.) Evolution of Human Walking,
Scientific American, vol. 259, (5). ""Leakey
R. and Lewin R. (1992): Origins Reconsidered, Little, Brown and
Co., ,p.90-91. offer an opposing view, that a bipedal chimp was faster.
Falk (1993). Sex Differences in visuospatial skills. In Tools, Language
and Cognition in Human Evolution, ed K.R.Gibson and T Ingold. Cambridge University Press.
See also the BBC Horizon programme, Hothead, 1994.
"Jablonski, N. G. and Chaplin, G.
(1994 Jan.): Avant les Premiers Pas: 1'origine de la bipedie, La
25, no. 261.
"Elaine Morgan. (1994). The Descent of the Child, Souvenir
Press, London, pp!56-168 offers the most recent summary of the hypothesis. 20ibid.
21Calvin, W. H. (1994 Oct.). The Emergence of Intelligence,
Scientific American, vol. 271, no 4: pp 78-83. 22The
irregular term thing using has been adopted because it is more
direct than 'opportunistic tool using" and perhaps it will convey more of the importance of the activity.
Alternatively homo opportunus may be more suitable, with its connotations of
'advantageous' and serviceable'. 23Gregory R. L. (1976). Eye and Brain, 2nd
ed. pp. 50-59
24Cooper L. A. and Shepherd R. N. (1984 Dec.). Turning
Something Over in the Mind, Scientific American, vol.251
no 6: 114-121. 25R.
L. Gregory: op. cit. 26Cooper and Shepherd 1984, loc. cit.
"Brooke Hindle (1981) Emulation
and Invention. New York University Press. Also see Eugene S. Ferguson:
Engineering and the Mind's Eye. MIT Press, pp.41-59.
Connolly and M. Dalgleish. 1989. The Emergence of a Tool-Using Skill in
Infancy. Developmental Psychology,
25, no. 6: 894-912.
29Henry Petroski (1985), To Engineer is Human, Macmillan,
30Calvin. 1994. He also makes the valuable point that
trying out things mentally, comparing possible outcomes, has evolutionary value: he
quotes Popper, that this permits our hypotheses to die in our stead. 31Schon
D. A., (1967). Invention and the Evolution of Ideas. Tavistock
H. J., (1970): Span of Bridges, David and Charles. 33L.
T. C. Roll (1965) Tools for the Job. Batsford. 34R.
Dawkins. (1988). The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books, London. 35G. Barsalla, G. (1988). The Evolution of
Technology, Cambridge, uses this metaphor. 36Luigi
Luca Cavalli-Sforza: (1991 Nov.) Genes, Peoples and Languages. Scientific
American pp. 72-78. 37J. Lyons, Chomsky, Fotana, 3rd
edition, 1991. 38Jackendoff, R. (1993). Patterns in the Mind. Harvester, pp.
universality of this basic linguistic form is described by Steven Pinker
(1994), The language Instinct, William Morrow, pp. 232-237.
'"'It will be interesting, if the language of dolphins and whales
is cracked, to see whether they have the same basic syntactical structures as human
languages; if they do, then the thing using hypothesis is weakened.
I am indebted to my wife for this, and many other suggestions. 4IJ.
Lyon, op. cit. pp. 24-25.
42R. Wallace (1989). Cognitive Mapping and
the Origin of Language and Mind, Current Anthropology, Vol. 30,
no. 4, 518-526. Ron. Wallace offers a different scenario to explain the
development of language. He suggests that the breakaway hominids found themselves in the new drier
environment and that scavenging was accompanied by a return to sites where stone tools
were used for butchering. Thus their spatial sense became more highly
developed and this was located neurologically in the hippocampus. He goes
on to suggest
that there are strong analogies between the mental processes involved in
this mental processing of spatial problems and the Chomskian
deep-structure processes such as tracing (inserting a place-holder when a
linguistic transformation is made) and embedding, where a sentence is
built up from subordinate clauses. Wallace's
suggestion relates to complicated language structures like the ability to
transform a sentence from active to passive. The idea of thing using thought
and the subject-verb-object structure is analogous, but plainly relates to a more basic level of
language formation. Furthermore, thing using refers to activities before
the use of stone.
43Oldfield, R. C., (1969). Handedness in Musicians. British
Journal of Psychology. 90,91-9. Quoted by K. A.
Flowers in article 'Handedness', Companion to the Mind, ed. R. L.
Gregory, Oxford. 1987. '"Allman, J. M. (1987) in article 'Evolution
of Brain in Primates', Companion to the Mind, ed. Gregory, Oxford.
45This outline hypothesis does not aim to give a complete
review of recent work in the field of human origins.For that, the collection of articles in Tools Language and Cognition
in Human Evolution (see note 13), forms a good introductory sample. It contains useful accounts of many of the
approaches to the dialogue on human origins, including tool-using and
language in chimps and monkeys and the growth of cognition and skills inhuman infants. As a stimulating introduction to the state of linguistics
and the idea of a wired in grammar, the reader may find Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Morrow
1994, or Ray Jackendoff, Patterns in the Mind, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. Nowhere, however,
so far as I am aware, is the idea put forward explicitlythat 'thing using', distinguished from the much later stone-tool
making, may be the primary activity leading to bipedalism, brain growth and the neural basis which would later
46The high proportion of the motor areas of the brain
devoted to the hands is clearly illustrated by the well known homunculus diagram. See A. Leroi Gourhan Le Geste et La Parole (1964)
(vol. 1 page 120), or page 82
in the English translation, Gesture and Speech, MIT Press 1993.
47 Allan Walker & Pat Shipman (1996). The Wisdom of
Bones. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. The authors argue strongly that the Nariokotome boy fossil (homo erectus) could not speak;
and they point out that Cavalli Sforza's
arguments suggest that even Neanderthal lacked language. If speech came
about so late, the importance of tool using in mental development becomes even clearer, pp
48C Daryl Forde (1934): Habitat, Economy and Society. Methuen.
F. T. (1982), 'Wood since the Industrial Revolution: a strategic
Retreat?', History of Technology, Vol.
7, pp. 37-55.
50English is imprecise in its ability to state exactly when
we are talking about applied scientific knowledge (technology?), its systematic application (technique?), the experience of
a craftsman (skill?). See Ingold, p.
433 'Tool-use, sociality and Intelligence', in Gibson and Ingold supra.
Also see Jacques Ellul (1964), The Technological Society for a philosophical view of the stifling
of creativity by technique.
"Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts and Manufactures, ed.
C. Tomlinson. Plate 'Bishopp's Rotary Steam Engine or
Disc Engine, (circa 1853.)
S. Ferguson (1992): Engineering and the Mind's Eye. MIT Press.
Ferguson argues that good engineering
is a matter of intuition and non-verbal thinking.
model is based on H.C.Fleeming Jenkin' s work. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, 9th edition, 4,1876: article 'Bridges'
Tsu Li, D G Jansson, E G Cravalho (1981). Technological Innovation in
Education and Industry. Van Nostrand.
F. T. (1987), 'Designing and Making exhibits', in Stephen Pizzey, ed. Interactive
Science and Technology
Centres, Science Projects Publishing, pp. 182-188.