The Science of Machines

Machines are a pretty vast subject covering everything in world history from its inception with prehistoric man to the present day. They cover anything mechanical that has more than one part and involves some type of inherent movement to produce a useful result. The Industrial Revolution begins the modern story as one after the other, a new invention changed the course of history.

It is a fascinating parade of imaginative yet practical concoctions: the locomotive, the automobile, the airplane, the cotton gin, the industrial robot, electronics and telephones, kitchen appliances, escalators and elevators, lawn mowers, sewing machines, motorboats, hairdryers, and more. This endless litany of essential “machines” populates the world so easily now that they seem to have always been there. We can’t do anything without them from brushing our teeth and cooking meals to sending an email or posting online. Machines transport us and organize our environment. They make our furniture, our homes, our clothing, and our daily supplies. We take them terribly for granted while they are the core of our lives.

What machine has impacted you the most? Perhaps there are several. Give it some thought as it may open your eyes. Meanwhile, if we turn to science for an explanation, we get down to basic physics to understand mechanics and electrical and thermal power. We can analyze the nature of energy, requiring a bit of chemistry thrown in. The definition of a machine is too loose to be valuable. We are better off looking at categories and their functions. Concepts like friction, force, and dynamics pop up for our inquisitive exploration. There are simple devices like wheels and pulleys, compressors and pumps, turbines, heat engines, riveting and weighing machines, and a whole lot more. Each has its own science behind its operation that dictates its utility.

While some machines have changed less in principle over the years than in appearance, electric devices seem fresh and new. The digital era is unlike any other in producing small communication and processing instruments that employ software and apps. While our homes and cars are more or less as they were one hundred years ago with a few cosmetic differences, laptops and tablets are not. The history of the machine would takes volumes, but in this blog I hope just to give an indication of the role of science in absolutely everything. The development of the vacuum tube, the transistor, the semiconductor, the integrated circuit, and the like are beyond miraculous. It is all more internal than external nowadays. Small things like lasers and solenoids are less visual than steam engines, but equally powerful in their own way.

In sum, hats off to the machine. We should sing its praises. As a caveat, however, let me offer a timely quote:

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man. Elbert Hubbard

I think this speaks for itself and we should never lose sight of who invented the machine in the first place!