It's That Month again. I've no argument with it to the extent that it reminds folks to take a look at what's too often conveniently overlooked -- nastiness like Woodrow Wilson's blandly blatant racism (I don't agree with everything this article says but it's the best a quickie search turned up) as he segregated the Federal government cannot be forgotten just because we find it awkward nor should driven entrepeneurs like Madam Walker be ignored. You're not required to play along and there is some point to it, sappily off-putting public-service announcements notwithstanding.
Like just about everything they touch, government schools and the (m)ass media twist the entire thing into blithe and heedless self-parody and among its worst excesses are the distortions suffered by techies. For example, alpha-geek Elijah McCoy, a Canadian who worked his way up from not much to the design and construction of many wonderful gadgets -- 57 patents for lubrication devices alone! There's even a bit of John Galt in his life, at least to modern eyes: a steam-engine fireman with his own home machine shop and many patents to his name. Alas, the admirable and inventive Mr. McCoy is fulsomely lauded with the overblown title "the father of lubrication" (what a shock to that first Fertile Crescent tinkerer who slathered olive oil on the screw of a wine press -- or his g'g'g'grampa, who first splattered mud in the path of a big rock being slid from here to there) and his true cool-geekiness is lost in the hype. He's not a god and his were not the only automatic oiler designs to be built and used nor were they the first. He was a remarkable guy -- and he was what all humans are: a tool-user. A tool-designer. He was a good one and not by chance: he worked at it. That's a man I want the young to know about!
But I want them to know the real guy. Putting any man or woman -- Tom Edison, Madame Curie, Elijah McCoy, C. J. Cherryh -- on too high a pedestal runs the risk of others looking up and thinking, "A fluke. Most [deaf guys/women/Canadians] could never do that. I never could" Bosh! Yeah, maybe you or your kids aren't going to invent a radioactive, self-oiling light bulb that flies faster than light, but there's plenty left to do and the human race is just the species to do it!
Maybe the tools you use are words. Or a guitar, a computer, a Bridgeport mill, a kitchen, a classroom. Maybe it's just your bare-nekkid mind against the universe or a sharp stick and your mother-wit against starvation, but you're a human. A tool-maker. A tool-user. Just like the guy who first tamed fire, likely so grimy you wouldn't be able to categorize his ancestry even if he was staring at you at the front door, offering Fuller brushes.
One man who'd had just about enough dithering and pussyfooting about was one of the many fathers of the early versions of the traffic light, a fellow whose manually-operated design found use because it allowed the hard-workin' traffic cop to get away from the deadly middle of the crossing and still work the signal! Garrett Morgan's stoplight signaled by color, by word, by position of the signal arms (including an "all stop" to give pedestrians a fightin' chance) and rang a bell when changing state. Try an' miss that, friends!
All history is geek history: famous generals, unknown inventors, all the scribblers and orators, the thinkers and tinkers, mothers and fathers, everything we do is driven by our handy hands and clever minds. If you're going to take a month and look at one small segment of the species, take a real look. Don't phone it in with fables and fairy tales. There are some Geeks Grande to be found if you'll go beyond the blurbs. Geeks like you.
1. I'm trying to be kind here
2. But don't go too far: "fireman" on a locomotive is no shrug and more than just shovelling coal. It's a skilled trade; keeping the fire properly shaped and burning efficiently, managing the loco's fuel supply vs. refuellings, etc. is not mindless labor. By the time bunker-oil-burning locomotives came along, the whole thing looked and behaved more like a modern nuke plant, with start-up times measured in half-days and not a single automatic anything.
3. I gotta quarter sez the Greek had their "agora hoplites," some of whom turned out to have the Right Stuff when the time came, some of whom lived in their Dad's basement with a bunch of tattered scrolls and knucklebones. Greek Geeks: more than just Archimedes!
YANKEE RADIO TOOL KIT, #106
5 weeks ago