by David M. Roth
I never imagined I’d be casting admiring looks at the fuel injection system of a vintage Alfa Romeo. But there I was, basking in the gleaming hulk of it, an amalgamation of brass and steel parts that immediately called up memories of the lovely exhaust note emitted by the Pinafarina-designed Spider (c. 1969). Given that its function was more felt than seen, it’s the sort of thing Steve Jobs, then a schoolboy, might have smiled on later in life. It’s one of 56 machined objects on display in an exhibition called Dead Nuts that takes in everything from hand tools and weapons to automotive technology, microelectronics and much else.
The title Dead Nuts, contrary to what you might think, is not an indelicate reference to male infertility; it’s engineer-slang for mechanical components that operate within extremely tight tolerances. The other thing to know about this exhibition, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus — the German institution synonymous with modernist art and design — is that it came about in response to a question that the show’s curator, David Cole,posed in 2009 to members of an online community of engineers and collectors. “What,” he asked them, “is the ultimate machined/object mechanism?”
One hundred forty-four of their responses line the exhibit’s walls, bringing to our attention many of the issues to which engineers devote their lives. Accompanied by QR codes, these exchanges appear opposite the inventions under discussion. The latter rest on floor-mounted pedestals or in vitrines, accompanied by pithy explanatory texts. This arrangement requires a back and forth two-step that offers at least one significant payoff: Aim your smartphone camera at any of the QR codes and you’re whisked to online histories which you can read on-the-spot or email to yourself to peruse later.
If all of this sounds like a well-organized science fair, that is because both the texts that explain each object and those on the walls center mainly on matters of cost, efficiency, speed and other performance metrics. Aesthetics — something Bauhaus adherents valued as much as functionality – go mostly unaddressed, a rather glaring omission in a show where there’s so much to see and savor. Consequently, the force driving the exhibition is a torrent of unexpected facts. The most amazing attach to obscure things most of us have never seen or heard of.
Take the compensating polar planimeter. It’s a protractor-shaped tool that enables you to calculate the area of an irregular shape like, say, San Francisco Bay, by pointing it at a map — a task that would otherwise require an “almost impossible” a level of math. Then there’s the Curta calculator, an object you could mistake for a pepper mill. Turning its crank sets in motion unseen gears capable of adding, multiplying, subtracting and dividing up to 15 digits. It was invented in the 1930s by a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp, Curt Herzstark. It remained the preeminent device of its kind until it was made obsolete by the electronic calculator in the 1970s.
The Stirling engine, which looks like none you’ve ever seen, is another example of ingenuity. Invented in 1816, it is a small (3-inch-in-diameter) metal disk spun by temperature differentials, enabling it to generate power without fuel or moving parts (save the disk itself). The Rohloff Speed Hub, a modern variant of the Sturmey-Archer gear hub that was once a key feature of Raleigh 3-speed bikes, also caught my attention. The sealed enclosure, which is here shown in a cutaway view, boasts 14 gears with a range of 526 percent. Meaning, that the lowest speed is 5.26 times slower than the highest. It is a beautiful thing.
A Continental aircraft engine from the 1940s with seven cylinders mounted in a circle looks, by contrast, like a hydra-headed monster. Another beast of an engine, taken from a Formula One racing car, looks sleek and mean – but not much different, at least in appearance, from those labored over by shade-tree mechanics. The difference is that every part of it is custom-built at a cost, we are told, of $100 million. That figure strains credibility until you learn that the total annual payout to the winners of Formula One events this year will hit almost a billion dollars.
Revelations such as these proliferate, but nowhere do they cohere in a more aesthetically pleasing fashion than in the Equation of Time Cam, a bronze-cast clock-calibration device designed to maintain accurate time for 10,000 years. The shape of it resembles a truncated sculpture by Jean (Hans) Arp, and is the best realization in the show of the Bauhaus ideal of form and function operating in complete harmony. The utility of the undulating shape is described by one commentator (identified as Lazlo) as follows: “Due to the elliptical orbit of Earth, variations in the absolute time kept by the pendulum and solar time can vary by as much as +/- 15 minutes each year. The Equation of Time Cam measures the difference in these two times and recalibrates the clock, while also correcting for the Earth’s axis wobble and one-second-per-century decrease in speed.” The cam, created in 1995 by Danny Hillis, is slated for installation in Nevada and Texas.
The most recent invention on view is a Pentium 4 microprocessor, the power behind personal computers from 2000 to 2005. Containing 200 million parts etched onto a circuit board measuring about one square inch, it is not — even with the magnifying glass provided — much to look it. Its utility and power – its beauty, if you will — reside in the work it can perform.
Therein, perhaps, lie the seeds of future exhibitions, the contents of which probably won't be visible as objects, but as experiences delivered by palm-sized devices linked to some form of AI: a portent that when viewed within the context of this exhibition shows where we’ve been and where we're headed.
# # #
“Dead Nuts: a Search for the Ultimate Machined Object” @ Museum of Craft and Design through December 1, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.