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Muscle Machines and Smart Devices. BOOKS

By Roy BarnacleRoy Barnacle is on the Monitor staff. / January 10, 1989



THE WAY THINGS WORK by David Macaulay, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 384 pp. $24.95

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`TO any machine, work is a matter of principle, because everything a machine does is in accordance with a set of principles or scientific laws.'' This introduction to ``The Way Things Work'' is typical of the text of this wonderful, beguiling book.

The ``things'' referred to are, of course, machines. David Macaulay ascribes no power to machines in themselves, but makes them subordinate to principles and powers that have always existed.

Machinery and machines are not modern phenomena. They began with the introduction of complex devices in classical antiquity. For the Greeks and Romans, human and animal muscle supplied the power to drive machines. In the Middle Ages, muscles began to be replaced by nonanimal power sources, such as waterwheels and windmills, and machines became larger and more complex.

This innovation continued to the end of the 18th century, when the steam engine heralded a new industrial age. With the development of machine tools themselves, the Machine Age accelerated rapidly.

With the further development of electric power toward the end of the 19th century, sophisticated machines changed both individuals and whole societies.

Today, machines contribute more to modern living than any other feature of 20th-century civilization, yet, as this book demonstrates, there is no single definition of machines or machinery.

Macaulay shows that mechanization encompasses a host of activities, and it is impossible to formulate a definition that would apply equally, say, to the essential nature of both a drill press and a computer.

Through cutaways and drawings of contemporary devices (such as automatic controls), Macaulay demonstrates that the freeing of humans from even their tasks of guiding machines is at least as important as the medieval invention of mechanical power sources was in freeing them for the pursuit of more intellectual activity.

At first, the drawings of the machines seem crude, the kind of sketch one might find on the tablecloth of a restaurant as one diner tries to explain to another just how something works. But the unpolished and unabashed simplicity of the illustrations of something so complex has an innocent exuberance about it that enables the reader to see how things do, indeed, work.

The author's drawings use the same technique as his now well-known ``Cathedral,'' ``Pyramid,'' and ``Underground'' books, which deal with the internal as well as the external structure of buildings and cities. His ``Motel of the Mysteries'' is a hilarious and droll projection of the unearthing of a 20th-century motel in 4022, and what archaeologists of the 41st century made of the artifacts found.

There is visual metaphor - light bulbs look as if they might be scaled to a blast furnace, a television's shadow mask has the appearance of Swiss cheese - and this gives the drawings their delightful and illuminating perspective.

A better use of color could have been made. There is some color - especially in the section that explains color printing - but most drawings have a faded look, a kind of sepia and white that gives the impression of old manuscripts, which is perhaps what the author intended.

Although this is a book dealing with contemporary machines, the only reference to steam power is a description of the kind of steam turbine one might find in a power station. James Watt's contribution as the inventor of the steam engine is relegated to an extremely short paragraph at the back of the book, and Robert Stephenson, the inventor of the steam locomotive, is not mentioned at all.

But all in all, the book is a dazzling collection of drawings and text that will impart basic knowledge of many machines and devices almost everyone uses or will use at some time.