Thursday, 14 April 2005

Nuts and bolts

I was never any good with Meccano. I liked playing with it, but I was never any good. You were supposed to construct mobile cranes and complex mechanisms like gearboxes that moved and did things. Nothing I made ever did anything; I made forts and towers, and the nearest I got to anything that moved or did things was a sort of box on wheels which I would push about in a desultory manner.

This should have shown me that I was not born to be an engineer, but later at school I fell in with a rather louche crowd of boys whose small talk was of turbines and hovercraft and such things, and was seduced by the romance of it all. So it was that I found myself at eighteen starting a degree course in Mechanical Engineering.

It was on the very first day that I realised what a terrible mistake I had made. We were given a tour of the building (in Gower Street, Bloomsbury; the fa├žade was later used as St Swithin’s Hospital in Doctor in the House) and after seeing the lecture rooms we were ushered into a vast hall full of gleaming machines, humming to themselves and smelling of oil. My fellow-students chattered with excitement; clearly, their lives had been but a preparation for this moment and they were full of joy at the prospect of getting to grips with a study of these marvels, some of which they could actually identify.

My reaction was different. A great gloom descended on me at the thought that I had committed myself to spending three or four years in the company of a lot of youths like the ones I had just met (and no girls), learning all about machines of various kinds, and then devoting the rest of my life to designing them, building them and generally doing whatever it is that mechanical engineers do.

I knew from that moment that I was very unlikely to succeed in this career, having absolutely no interest in or talent for engineering; a couple of unhappy years went by before the college authorities reached the same conclusion and recommended me strongly to consider a different path.

So the effect of Meccano on me had been unfortunate. However, in later years I realised what a pity it is that Meccano has been displaced in the affections of children by a pretty Scandinavian toy; when you made a model in Meccano you used a spanner and pulleys and angle girders and trunnions and worm gears, so that you learned what these things are for; clicking multicoloured plastic bricks together teaches you nothing.

With Outfit No 2, a child with a talent for things mechanical might build, say, a working model of a helve hammer, whatever that is:

On a much higher level you could make a gearbox with 56 wheels or even an elephant which walks along swinging its tail. (Well, some people could; I couldn't, and never wanted to.)


But today the young are never introduced to such wonders; perhaps this is one reason why engineering no longer evokes the ambition of the most brilliant students; if Brunel had been brought up on Lego he’d probably have taken up accountancy or media studies.

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