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.   hunkin





I was recently asked to speak about ‘The Mind of an Engineer’ for an Anthropology Conference in Cologne. The subject particularly interested me because I’m in the unusual position of having experience of two opposite extremes of engineering; the theoretical engineering science I was taught and also of the practical, working with my hands.

I am an engineer, I love machines of all sorts. Every week I travel to London and wait on a desolate platform but I’m not bored, there’s so much to puzzle out. Just how do those bogies connect to the main frame of the engine, besides the many huge springs there are shock absorbers and tension bars so how much freedom of movement do they have. Then where are the motors, are they inside the bogies or up in the engine with some clever transmission? – and why is the engine so noisy – the noise is cooling fans of some sort but what inside the electric engine needs so much cooling. A plate on the side says it weighs 86 tons – I like to have a feel of what 86 tons looks like (roughly the weight of 1000 people). And just how much current passes the single contact to the overhead line – its fun to try and work out in my head. Almost every trip I find something new to puzzle about. When the tracks are empty I turn my attention to the track or overhead suspension system – but don’t get me started. This sort of detail which I find endlessly fascinating is completely boring to non engineers. Admitting to be an engineer is a useful conversation stopper at social events.

However ‘The Mind of an Engineer’ is not straightforward because engineers aren’t all the same. My father in law was a successful civil engineer but at home, completely impractical – he hit his thumb every time he tried to hang a picture. Some engineers (like me) enjoy problem solving and fault finding, while others prefer following procedures and PDFs. Some enjoy working in large teams while others (like me) prefer to work alone. Generally engineers (like me) are more interested in machines and structures than people. As an engineer says ‘you know where you are with a transistor’. When my wife is cross with me she says ‘you’re so aspergers’. Though most people see me as an engineer, those who are further along the spectrum regard me as an artist.

I will start by describing how I think, and then try to extrapolate to the minds of other engineers. As a child, I was always making things. At university I read Engineering Science at Cambridge – a theoretical course which I enjoyed, but then got a job as a cartoonist for The Observer, a UK sunday paper. Since then I’ve done a lot of different things, but gradually what was originally a hobby making arcade machines took over. I've now made over 40 machines and run two arcades.

You can imagine its satisfying to go and watch people enjoying my machines. Not many jobs have such immediate and positive ‘feedback’. I also love emptying them – the cash is too heavy to lift – I’ll never be rich but its much more satisfying than any salary or cheque.

I’m always being asked how I come up with the ideas for the machines. I don’t really know how to answer this because I’ve never had much trouble coming up with ideas. To me the interesting part is translating the ideas into finished machines. They each take months to make and most of the time is spent solving conventional engineering problems. The hardest problem is to make them really reliable – people get cross if they put their money in and nothing happens. Some of them have now been used nearly half a million times so its not easy. They also have to comply with various safety standards and electrical regulations. So however weird and wonderful they look, they also have to be seriously engineered.


Walking prototype Mk2 video

My latest arcade machine is called ‘The Fulfilment center’. Its an Amazon warehouse where you are a worker. I started by experimenting with walking mechanisms. Although I was pleased with my first attempt, other people found it just too much effort so I had to start all over again. You can see all the places where I’ve changed the design, welding in new bits. I was attempting to get the maximum stride length without bumping into the end stops within the minimum amount of space – there’s no obvious sum to do that. I don’t find drawings and CAD that useful. I think better in my workshop. Prototypes like this sort good ideas from bad ideas and suggest the next steps. My tools and stores act as a physical memory map. I often go to my workshop in the morning with no idea how to solve the next problem, but in this rich surrounding it either gets solved – or at least moved on to a different problem for the next day. My workshop looks old fashioned, but its not cut off – I can get any part I could possibly need delivered the next day. I think my process is very efficient, I complete a new machine in about 6 months.


Fulfilment center on test

Most engineers can’t work as efficiently as this because working in teams, they have to spend a lot of time sharing and documenting their work. I would find it frustrating, but its obviously essential for large projects. I still don’t think its quite enough to explain why my way of designing and making things is so different from what I was taught at university.

I didn’t enjoy school and when the careers officer, surprised at my good final exam results, suggested I apply for Cambridge, he told me to opt for engineering because it was a less prestigious subject and easier to get a place. I accepted only because their bizarre system meant that I got 9 months holiday before starting. Once there I found the engineering department zealous to prove their academic credentials, proudly triumphing that engineering had become a science. The course consisted mostly of hard sums – and I enjoyed doing them – the understanding was satisfying. I liked the enthusiasm of the tutors and absorbed the idea that engineering is never perfect - always a compromise between costs, time, and performance. The place also encouraged my outside interests, giving me enormous confidence to think and find stuff out for myself and believe that I should just follow my instinct and life would be fine.

After I left Cambridge I realised that the university’s sense of privilege had given me a confidence which has been wonderful, though I’m still a bit embarrassed by it. Anyway, following my instincts I gradually got better at making things, which I found more satisfying but harder and slower to learn than the academic stuff. I still regularly use the basic maths and physics I learnt at school like proportion, trigonometry and Ohm’s law, but I’ve never once used any of the clever advanced mathematics I learnt at Cambridge.

I now realise this sort of analytical engineering was taught at least partly because it was perceived as higher status. On the few occasions we got to design things, they were handed to the department’s ‘workshops’ to be fabricated. There was complete separation between ‘engineers’ and ‘technicians’. In the past there was always a plentiful supply of clever technicians to do the practical thinking for the elite, so their contribution was taken for granted and rarely appreciated.
Diverse et Artificiose Machine, Agostino Ramelli, 1588

Years later I was delighted to discover ‘Engineering and the mind’s eye’, written by Eugene Ferguson, a US history professor, championing non-verbal thinking. His idea is that engineering is not principally a mathematical or scientific discipline. It is primarily about spatial thinking, communicated by engineering drawings. Right back to the sixteenth century people have tried to obscure this. Lavishly illustrated books of ‘Engineering Secrets’ or ‘Theatres of Machines’ were very popular at the time. Ramelli, one of the most prominent authors, stresses the importance of mathematics in the design of the machines illustrated. But he doesn’t show any sums and no one has since ever found any evidence that mathematics was involved at all. Ferguson and others now believe the mathematical illusions were included to make the books more ‘erudite’ to appeal to the rich people buying them.

.             Newcomen's steam engine

Two centuries Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine for pumping water out of mines, but in Britain its not Newcomen who is celebrated but James Watt. Newcomen was illiterate and most of the people who understood how his engine worked were miners, always dirty from the coal dust. Watt’s contribution, the separate condenser, was an improvement but particularly celebrated because it was connected to the science of thermodynamics, a fashionable scientific topic of the time.

Nayssmith's painting of his invention, the steam hammer

In the mid nineteenth century James Naysmith, the inventor of the steam hammer, confronted a similar problem encountering young victorian dandies, outfitted in fancy clothes and wearing kid gloves who called themselves engineers with this quote: “the eyes and fingers – the bear fingers – are the two principal inlets to trustworthy knowledge in all the operations and materials that an engineer has to deal with...Hence I have no faith in young engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves. Gloves, especially kid gloves, are the perfect non-conductors of technical knowledge.”

In the 20th century, science and engineering came to be ‘lumped together’, with the idea that ‘scientists make discoveries and engineers convert them into useful products’. While this is true in certain cases, most obviously nuclear weapons which stemmed directly from theoretical research on the atom, its usually not so clear cut. I find it annoying that science takes the credit for many engineering achievements, particularly the moon landing. Though science was involved in many ways, there was no fundamental scientific discovery that made it possible. 




All the equipment that had to be designed and constructed – the multiple stages of rockets, the multiple landing modules, the control systems, the life support systems - these were principally feats of engineering and engineering by a very special group of people. 

Engineers at Houston mission control watching the first moon landing, 20th July 1969

Tom Wolfe’s essay about the moon landing describes the engineers involved as ‘farm boys from the mid west’ who went to the west coast in the second world war and designed the Mustang fighter while still in their teens or early twenties. By the time of the moon landing these men had both the practical background of fixing machines on the farm and an unprecedented amount of experience, having been given so much responsibility so early in their careers.

Ferguson has many other examples right up to the 1990s when he published his book. Its still just as relevant today according to my friend Will Jackson. We worked together in the 1990s but then his career took off and he now runs Engineered Arts, a successful robot company with 20 employees. His initial market was for science centers – theatrical robots to greet visitors. But universities then started buying them for their research projects. Will gradually discovered that very few universities actually make their own robots, they mostly just tinker with the software. After a few years he came to the conclusion that little came out of their efforts and that all the major advances in robotics were being made by the robot manufacturers themselves. Will is prone to exaggeration, but there’s at least some truth in what he says.

Ferguson is too extreme because the development of the parts like transistors which both Will and I use have involved lots of maths and science. The transistor was invented by Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain at Bell labs in 1947. (Bell telephone was an industrial lab interested in trying to improve telephone exchange switching). Bardeen was a mathematician, Brattain had the practical skills and Shockley (the team leader) had the political skills to bulldoze the ‘theoretical’ project through. Its the combination of the three talents that made the project succeed and a rare example in which everyone was equally credited.

Left to right - Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain

However, Ferguson’s basic point that there’s a long tradition of engineers stressing their mathematical and scientific credentials remains. Non engineers, particularly journalists and politicians, who don’t really understand how things are are made, have accepted this without question. But this slick, high tech view hides the true richness of engineering. It hides the decisions that can only be made on intuition and experience, the elements of creativity essential in all engineering design.

Many engineers would disagree, claiming its precisely the application of science and mathematics to making things that is their role. There’s truth in this but it ignores that intuition, experience and creativity remain essential for designing everything – even high tech things like smartphones. I just wish engineers would be more proud of their discipline and the richness and power of the tradition its based on. Not just regarding it as a branch of science but something completely distinct and fundamental. The word engineer comes from the latin ‘ingenium’ which meant intelligence or talent, and from which we also get the word ingenious.

This is the moment to introduce my next hero, Francis Evans. He was professor of the history of technology at Sheffield Hallam university. He spent a lot of his later life on a paper called ‘Two legs, tool using and talking’ which influenced me a lot. His grand idea is that technology is not just something humans do but a fundamental part of being human.

Lucy, an early bipedal ape, 3.2 million years old

He argues that the period when the first apes stood on two legs 2-3 million years ago coincides with the moment their brains started getting much larger. Our brains are now 2-3 times larger than those first bipedal apes - in evolutionary terms a very rapid change which must have been driven by some powerful survival advantage. His theory is simply that, with our hands free, there was enormous potential for hand-eye-brain co-ordination. Today, people with no interest in technology will still pick up a stick to pick fruit, to help them walk, to scrape mud off their shoes, to ward off an angry animal. We so take this opportunistic tool use for granted that we don’t realise its clever – but even with AI, no robot has come anywhere close. From this he deduces we are ‘hard wired’ to think with our hands even though we so take it for granted that we don’t realise it. Francis ends his paper by speculating that this is connected to the origin of language. That Chomski’s ideas of universal elements of grammar, like subject verb and object, come from our brain’s hard wired adaptation for tool use – hammer hit nail. This is way out of my depth but Francis started out his career researching linguistics so did know the subject intimately.

His paper disappeared without trace. His ideas are impossible to prove and cross so many disciplines. However, I’d been puzzling why I had rejected my academic education and wanted to work with my hands so I was obviously interested. It suddenly made sense why I don’t enjoy working on my computer, why when in the workshop not knowing what to do next, my hands seem to take over, and even why my hands constantly fiddle with things when I’m in the pub.

200 years ago, before maths and science got involved, clever people were already making amazingly complex and impressive buildings, ships and clocks. Their skills were the ‘spatial thinking’ championed by Ferguson and Francis Evan’s ‘thinking with the hands’. I can’t really believe engineers have changed that much.

Sainte Chapelle Vincennes c1500

church clock escapement c1600                                                          ship c1650 

I’m not completely alone working with my hands. Dean Karman, the inventor of the Segway and many other things, writes that he prefers designing in his machine shop to CAD. Rich software engineers on the west coast put enormous energy into the extraordinary things they build in their spare time for the annual Burning Man festival and many engineers have practical hobbies like fixing old cars. Also many engineers I’ve met are envious of my position, having found a niche where I can make a living designing things by working with my hands. Aspects of this apply even more generally. While I was talking to a design engineer at De Walt’s power tool factory in Newcastle, he was handed a finished part that he had spent weeks designing. Excited, he couldn’t stop feeling it all over. Though he spends his life on his computer, he said the final proof always has to wait until the part is in his hands.

I don’t think the structures and machines around us can be really understood without a fascination for the practical details, central to ‘the mind of an engineer’. This fascination is much more than the boring details on the station I love puzzling out, the creative potential of engineering is limitless as I’ve discovered in my own career. But it’s even more than that...

I was a teenager at the time of the moon landings and didn’t pay much attention, convinced they were US cold war propaganda, but as I’ve got older and read more about them they seem more and more awe inspiring. I don’t think people still quite get the impossible odds, except perhaps Virgin and SpaceX who have quietly dropped the prospect of future moon landings. I live in the country so the nights are dark and the moon is bright. Every time I look at it I can hardly believe it was possible for anyone to walk about on it. I’ve never thought of myself as a romantic but writing this made me realise that I am romantic about engineering - it really is the stuff of dreams. It makes me proud to be an engineer.




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