Sunday, February 24, 2008

Geek History

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[1] 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[2] 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[3], 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!


Turk Turon said...

I recently discovered that James Edward Maceo West (1931 - ) is one of the principal inventors of the electret microphone. Bush gave him a Medal of Technology in 2006.

Then follow the link to his birthplace, Prince Edward County, Virginia and read about the obstacles this guy overcame to get an education:

An ironic lesson that might be taken from the experiences of Mr. West, and others like him, is that it is possible to get a first-class education without the government.

Tango Juliet said...

This, ladies and gentleman, is preciselywhy I visit this blog.


Roberta X said...

Thank you! I'm charmed!

Farm.Dad said...

good post , Living as i do in farm country where a " home machine shop " is not as rare as it may be elsewhere i see a lot of innovations . Some good , some if not bad at least more effort than they are worth lol . Where and how i grew up a lathe is as much a tool for any well equipped shop as a cutting torch . Many folks never " make " anything tho , they have some kinda old machine in the shop because the green paint on an axle stub alone is 90 bucks and up . If you can " chuck it in and smooth it up " then weld it back on it dont take long to pay for an older lathe . Especially if you work out deals with neighbors who dont have one lol . Point i guess is that in some areas of the country you cant swing a fair sized cat with out whacking some kind of machinist. I should point out that once you learn to square up your machine , and chuck your workpiece square the rest of machining is just patience and practice . If you can cut of an axle stub , turn it smooth , reweld it and have your equipment up and running then you have to ask just how hard is most gunsmithing ?. A tube gun ect is easy and loose by comparison . There is some innovative crap out there now , i have seen some lol built by poo folk with poo ways . There might not be a lot of " higher education " out here in flyover country but both coasts really need to remember that they need us worse than we need them . No matter our plumbing , color , religion , or whom we choose to take to our bed we are likely to be competent with real skills . Innovation is by no means dead today , its just hiding from taxes LOL .

Anonymous said...

"Geeks Grande"? I like that one!

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'm amused and pleased to meet a woman who knows what a bridgeport is. I have a pair of old McCoy oilers around here somewhere.

Roberta X said...

...H'mmm, I don't know if I should own up to the Gerstner toolbox in the basement or not....

Og, it is a pleasure to meet you. I admired Operation Wild Oats!

Anonymous said...

Never had the cash to justify a Gerstner. Have a kennedy. Still. Made my own 123 blocks, grinding vise, yadda yadda.

Now I need to get the stuff together and make my rifling lathe.

Roberta X said...

Og, mine was an eBay find. Since most of my (mainly vintage electronics) home shop has a 1930s/40s look, just like the gadgets I build and fix in it, I kinda had to. Plus it's a delight to the eye.

Turk, I finally had a chance to look up the redoubtable Mr. West -- heck of a guy!

Turk Turon said...

Yeah, and did you see that 1970s-vintage picture of him in the disco-shirt? And that was quite a 'fro he had back then.

(secret word: wuteev)