Monday, 7 June 2010

Futurism - it's so last century...

As I may have noted in passing before, our two-year old offpsrog Guthlac is a pushover for anything mechanical and - preferably - noisy. The other night he was heard talking in his sleep, muttering in an agitated but intelligible voice "Mummy, no, Guthlac flyyyyy de plaaaaane..."

When Djangolina and her visiting friends from Germany opted for a trip into Birmingham, it quickly became apparent that the one place I knew Guthlac would adore was not on their agenda. So we agreed to split - the girls would go to the Sea-Life Centre to coo over cute turtles and seahorses, while Guthlac and I would head for the science museum at Millennium Point to coo over steam engines, old cars and Spitfires.

I was right - he did adore it. I let him have a run around first, richocheting from wonder to wonder in a state of chronic indecision as to which admire the most - the traction engine? The steam locomotive? The vintage cars? The vintage motorbikes? The Spitfire and Hurricane suspended tantalisingly out of reach from the ceiling? We then had a spot of lunch, after which I plonked him in the buggy for a more leisurely tour. This time, we headed for the other end of the hall, where the assorted industrial steam engines are kept.

There is something hypnotic about the workings of an old engine, and one very good thing the Birmingham musem does is keep as many of the machines turning over as possible. In addition, there is a series of enlightening hand-cranked exhibits showing how piston movement is tranferred into rotary motion, how a governor works, and the motion of planetary gears. Personally, I prefer that to Damien Hirst's sliced dead things any day - but then, I grew up in the Black Country where such things are considered the summit of our culture.

Much as I hate to agree on any level with tedious proto-fascist madman Dick Marinetti (purists may argue that his name was Filippo, but personally I've always thought of him as a Dick), there is beauty in the workings of machines. And particularly, the kind of machines that were around at the end of the 19th century.

It's not just the pleasing steam-punk elegance of turned brass handles and white-backed, glass-fronted dials; it's also the fact that so many modern machines are impenetrable 'black boxes' which do clever things but cannot be seen to be doing anything at all. And that had me wondering sincerely about when exactly the point was when futurism became retro. Was it when valves replaced cogs? Or when transistors replaced valves?

At this point, I became aware of a subtle change in the sound of the machine in front of me, and upon looking down realised that the noise was being caused by Guthlac's hat, which in an experimental turn of mind he had fed into a gear mechanism.

Condensing the entire experience, I have learnt two important things:
1) Form guided by function can be as aesthetically beautiful as pure art, possibly because the challenge of achieving a funtionally working form gives vital grist to the designer's mill, and
2) A two-year old in a museum requires absolute 100% attention at all times.


No Good Boyo said...

Guthlac's hat meets Schroedinger's cat! What is it with young men and machines? Bendigeidfran recently cost me a new Virgin TV box. He also knows how to put my mobile on mute, which defeats me.

The Jules said...

Rules to live by at the end there.

I shall take my own offsprog.

Kevin Musgrove said...

Form following function is by definition beautiful. And the Victorians in particular weren't afraid of being proud of their ability to find engineering solutions for difficult problems.

One of the most beautiful objects I've ever seen was the gas turbine that fed the old Gaythorne gasometer in Manchester.


I'll show him my 1960 Matchless G5 350 some time - he can have a go on it when a bit bigger...

Scarlet Blue said...

*juvenile sniggering over hand-cranked exhibits tantalisingly out of reach*
...well, did you expect anything better from me?

Gyppo Byard said...

Boyo - It's an instinct. Guthlac went through a period of depositing all manner of bizarre items in the video recorder in the hopes they'd play interesting films.

Jules - Do take your kid. It's brilliant. And while you're there, can you see if you can get Guthlac's hat back?

Kevin - I agree entirely. One of the machines by which we were mesmerised was an 1890-something gas pumping engine.

Mr Wessex - You'll have difficulty prising him off it, even if it is a southerner's bike. Were you to offer him a spin on, say, an AJS that would be even better.

Scarlet - I was thinking of you when I left that feedline dangling temptingly.

Scarlet Blue said...

I thought as much!
All feedlines gratefully received.

Gyppo Byard said...

I considered asking you to crank my governor until the balls were spinning, but that would be beneath both of us.

inkspot said...

Hats off to Guthlac.

Us boys wouldn't find pistons so, er, fascinating if they didn't have cylinders to go in and out of you know. Yin and yang, yang and yin.

Sauti Ndogo said...

It's a tragedy of our age that the average youngster can no longer make anything (except a web page) or mend anything (except a "broken link"). You and I could make a crystal radio set and mend a bicycle puncture. And we were happier for it. Hence the thrill of visiting such museums.

Gyppo Byard said...

Inky - True, but you don't need cylinders for a jolly good Wankel.

(Link for those who think I'm merely being crude:

Sauti - indeed we could. We could also set fire to our own fingers and get flakes of rust in our eyes. Nowadays when I do that my 11-year old merely rolls her eyes and comments on my incompetence. And I've told repeatedly her that's her mother's job...