Friday, December 30, 2011

Old Bricks

Earlier this year my wife and I spent a day walking around a steampunk festival in Waltham, MA. Some of the festival was a little weird; a large contingent of sci-fi fetishists were wandering around in clothing that was covered in broken watch parts, and other elaborately contrived devices.  But some of the festival was interesting. And the Charles River Museum of Industry was showing off a number of cool things. It sparked a number of conversations about art, and technology, and so on.

One of the things that I finally noticed is that all of the fantastic contraptions, contrived as they are, are designed to augment humanity, and not to replace it. I saw a costume with an oversized mechanical hand. There was a painting of a huge mechanical creature with four arms, controlled by a brain in a jar, that was even more outlandish. (Outlandish, but still being controlled by a human brain.) And in the realm of the real, there was an old watch case engraving device on display in the museum; it took normal human movements within a 2 foot circle, and scaled them down in speed and scope to fit those designs onto watch cases. This would enable a normal person to engrave the finest of details in silver, without needing such fine motor skills and perfect eyesight. It was really cool. Real or imagined, the machines still imply and require the presence of a human mind to make everything work. But my biggest concern with steampunk (fetishist costumes aside) is that the notion of humans accomplishing incredible things, even with mechanical embellishment, is starting to be regarded as fantasy.

The Everett Mill
I have a hard time with this, because I work in Lawrence, MA. Lawrence has a dark history regarding treatment of labor. But the town itself was designed to operate as a manufacturing machine on a monumental scale. And it was built that way from the foundations up. A dam in the Merrimac river feeds canals that run alongside the building foundations. These canals connected to huge underground water tunnels, feeding the turbines that powered the mill buildings and all of their machinery. The factories were designed to breathe in raw materials via railway, and exhale finished products on those same trains. The Dam, the canals, the foundations and the buildings, and the train bridges... Lawrence as an enterprise was the reality of capable men building functional systems on a very large scale. But there’s more to it than that, because the earliest precision machines weren’t made by other machines. Lawrence is an amazing example of hand craftsmanship. The buildings and bridges and the infrastructure from 100 years ago are still there. And it conveys just how capable human hands really are.

My building superintendent told me a few things that he learned about the neighboring building that he learned while they were preparing to turn it into condos. The walls taper in thickness going up, but it’s so gracefully done that it’s not obvious without using a plumb line. They surveyed it before turning it into condos. The diagonals of each floor were measured to see how square the building was, and the diagonals differed by three quarters of an inch. This kind of detail is impressive on its own, but more so when you consider that it’s a 7 story building hundreds of feet long, made of hand laid brick.

The Wood Mill
And this kind of craftsmanship is all over town. The Wood Mill, end to end, is longer than the height of the Empire State Building... and it's a nice, clean, straight building. (Currently being converted into loft spaces) The Ayer Mill building (now occupied by New Balance) has the second-largest 4 sided clock tower in the world, with clock dials that are only 6” smaller in diameter than those of Big Ben. After over 100 years, the original hand-made clock movement is still running, and keeping good time. (Some ASTOUNDING photos can be found here.) The city itself was designed to be (and still feels like) a huge production machine, built with a know-how that feels all but lost sometimes... but the bricks that haven’t been knocked down are all still solidly in place. The canals and bridges are still there. Many of the connections between buildings are still there, and it’s still easy to see where the trains came and went, bringing raw materials in, and finished products out, in an efficient fashion. And the more I learn about how the city was made, the more impressed I am by the feeling of walking around inside of something really cool. It’s old, it’s diminished, and parts of it are long gone. I still marvel that the humble human hand can build such things.

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