In the 80s I used to hang out in my friend’s garage, listening to FM radio and watching him take things apart. He was a gear-head, and keen to look deep into any crap vehicle that left an oil patch in its wake. Whenever he needed a third hand I’d step in, but beyond that I wasn’t much help. I could rattle off the basic components of a combustion engine, but couldn’t reassemble one to save my life.
He finally turned to me and said, “You’ve got no head for this, so why do you bother?”
“It’s not about being practical,” I told him. “I like looking at engines. I think they’re works of art.”
He gave me a queer look, and returned to his work. After a few minutes curiosity finally got the better of him, and he broke the silence. “What do you mean, ‘Works of art?’”
“I mean I think they’re beautiful. They have this terrific balance between function and form. All these meticulously crafted geometric shapes put together for optimal mechanical performance; in the process they attain an aesthetic balance as well.”
He snorted. “You’d probably surprise a few engineers with that thought.”
“Would I? Just look at the block of a V-8 engine and tell me someone wasn’t concerned about it actually looking nice. It’d be one thing if it were just a hunk of metal with 8 holes bored into it, but it’s actually a smooth hunk of metal, with well-defined edges. The holes are perfectly round, evenly spaced. It’s very tidily designed. I’m telling you, if you shone the right light on it and photographed it from the right angle, you would think it’s beautiful.”
I still believe that to be true. In fact, someone with the right talent could make quite a snazzy coffee-table book out of photographing the guts of a car (hey, JD: you listening?). But my fascination is spurred by more than some Platonic sense of perfect balance. I can remember the awe I felt when I saw my first motorcycle dismantled, staring into the tabernacle of those combustion chambers and thinking, So this is where it all happens.
It’s a little like looking inside the human body. I sort of know how it all works, and in the case of the combustion engine, I have some glimmer of the reasoning applied to its design. And of course the way an engine “goes” isn’t in the same league of mystery as the way recombinant DNA “goes.” But still: wow!
Reverence — that’s the word I’m looking for. I actually revere this stuff. Tomorrow I'll post another example from my youth.