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March 26, 2007

Building something from nothing

photo of a machine shop lathe

Perhaps the only thing I have in common with Issac Newton(*) is that we are both fond of the famous phrase "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants" as a shorthand way of expressing gratitude to the multitude of scholars who have come before, and upon whom all present and future learning and discovery are based.

But that "building upon the past" meme isn't just true of knowledge. Something very similar has happened in the physical world, where early inventions and machines have made it possible to build new inventions and machines, which made possible still other inventions and machines, and so on, all the way from the wheel and spear to the iPod.

On the blog for his forthcoming book The Technium, Kevin Kelly tells the wonderful story of some crazed folks who are recapitulating big parts of that journey, all on their own. For instance, take the story of Dave Gingery...a machinist who started out with nothing but some metal scraps found in an alley, and eventually built himself an entire full-scale machine shop...

Gingery began with a simple backyard foundry. This was a small 5-gallon bucket packed with sand. In its center was a coffee can of smoldering BBQ charcoal. Inside the can of charcoal was a small ceramic crucible into which he threw scrap aluminum – cans, etc. Gingery forced air into this crude furnace via a fan, burning the charcoal with enough heat to melt the aluminum. He poured the molten metal into a mold of wet sand carved out in the shape he wanted. When the cast was cool he had a workable metal holding plate, which became the heart of a homemade lathe. Other lathe parts were cast. He finished these rough parts with hand tools. His one "cheat" was adding a used electric motor – although it is not impossible to imagine a wind or water powered version.

When the rough lathe was up and running he used it to turn out the parts for a drill press. With the drill press and lathe operating he constantly reworked pieces of the lathe itself, replacing parts with improved versions. In this way, his tiny machine shop was an upcreation device, capable of generating higher a machine of precision than itself. He used this upcreation tool to manufacture the pieces needed for a fully functioning milling machine. When the milling machine was completed he could make almost anything.

You can read the full account, as well as Kevin's very interesting thoughts on just how insanely hard it is to really completely recreate a technological world, at www.kk.org/thetechnium/.

(*)I just thought of another thing Newton and I have in common, both of us have visited Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Of course, when he visited he was already dead.

Posted by Chris Spurgeon at March 26, 2007 12:32 PM