Happy Tuesday everyone - This edition of CoolNews features thoughts surrounding precision as inspired by my recent listen to The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, followed by a bunch more general design-oriented / assorted awesome links.
Precision: From Block and Tackles to GPS
The first precision parts evolved through early timepieces, locks, guns, and clunky automobiles. While these components were precise in that they entailed extensive hand-filing to ensure perfect fits, they lacked a critical distinction of today’s expectations that a finished good can be built by assembling identical subcomponents arbitrarily plucked from their given buckets. It is this interchangeability that enables mass production, and that realization sparked the now never-ending quest to create machines, tools, and products of ever-increasing precision. “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World” chronicles this continual drive of craftsmen and engineers to improve the precision of machines in chronological chapters of decreasing tolerances. I first heard about this book through this Hidden Forces podcast with author Simon Winchester, which serves as an interesting appetizer / stand-alone listen. There are plenty of fascinating stories of the people, parts, and processes that have paved the road to commonplace expectations of previously unimaginable complexity, scale, and automation along with discussions of the accompanying consequences of losing craftsmanship and allowing success vs. catastrophic failures to be separated by mere microns.
Pushed by Britain’s wartime needs, the humble block and tackle is cited as the first precision mass-produced object, developed at a time where interchangeability was required to keep up with the massive uptick in battleship production. This was achieved by designing novel machines that would cut and drill hunks of wood to repeatable dimensions, drastically increasing throughput over what had only been done by hand. This breakthrough helped secure Britain’s subsequent naval dominance, and these techniques would later be directly applied to the Model T production line and eventually all of today’s factories. Yet this demotion of master craftsmen to unappreciated machine operators also fueled protests that would burn factories to the ground in an early glimpse of the double-edged sword of automation.
Timekeeping is a great case study for tracking how intertwined technology and social change can be, from early clocks bringing standardization of transportation and work schedules to the now nanosecond accuracy underpinning every electronic device. That might be Why Time Is One of Humanity's Greatest and Most Important Inventions. The impressiveness of transistor precision is perhaps only matched by its sheer scale of production. Features that are controlled to atomic widths fill the all the transistors that now outnumber all combined leaves on our trees. Here’s a great engineering talk breaking down all of those processes over the course of an hour, aptly titled Indistinguishable From Magic: Manufacturing Modern Computer Chips, and a recent deep dive on The Ultra-Pure, Super-Secret Sand That Makes Your Phone Possible. Nevertheless there is always a darker side to building huge responsibilities on top of razor-thin margin. As Bloomberg reports, a mere 31 GPS satellites carry the world’s entire economy but are susceptible to being thrown into chaos from errors as small as millionths of a second.
Design / Assorted Links
🏙🌲 Sidewalk Labs unveils their design for the futuristic Toronto neighborhood. This would be the worlds largest timber project, featuring modular roadways for easier maintenance and embedded lighting / heating as necessary.
🏠 The awesomeness of German windows that use a linkage in the handle to open either regularly or about the bottom edge for minor venting.
☕️ Product Semantics is a neat series from Yanko Design where various product / company design languages are applied to other everyday items. Examples include such as these two concepts of a Dyson-inspired coffee machine.
🚗 Marques Brownlee takes a tour of the Tesla Model 3 general assembly line with Elon Musk - big robots everywhere and decidedly less hectic than what people might have imagined.
🕹 Nintendo Labo’s Latest Cardboard Kit Turns Kids Into Auto Engineers. These look so fun.
🔋 A $3B Plan to Turn Hoover Dam into a Giant Battery by using solar and wind energy to pump water back upstream when water levels need recharging. There have been other city-scale ingenious “batteries” that store energy via heat or inertia instead of chemically, although simply lifting concrete blocks might do the job.
🤖 Miniaturization allows for interesting applications such as some spider-like robots performing surgery inside your body or jet-engine inspection. At a more macro level, recent cool innovations include:
- NYT continues coverage on How Robot Hands Are Evolving to Do What Ours Can.
- Theo Jansen Debuts His Newly Slimmed Down Wind Powered Walking Strandbeest For 2018
- Ford makes EksoVest exoskeletons available to employees worldwide after successful US trials.
- This neat robot that can transform its legs between various walking and rolling modes.
💥 Wicked Footage (and Sound) of High Speed Laser Engraving.
🧠 New research sheds light on how our brains’ wiring is highly specialized for actively forgetting via filtering out all the unnecessary memories. An Amazing New Brain Map of Every Synapse Points to the Roots of Thinking, and Researchers Construct the Most Complete Image of a Brain Ever. Brain imaging and eventual computer interfaces will really drive the next wave of miniaturized precision.
📖 How Minecraft is helping kids fall in love with books - a glimpse at what AR books could become.
📹 Quick fun videos of:
- If anyone could manipulate everyday things in real life,
- Seamless transitions make up really neat effects in this snowboarding video.
- Stunning Drone Footage Taken Flying Over the Ancient Ruins of Pompeii.
📸 In the land of stills, here are some of the year’s best astronomy, drone, and underwater photography - as judged by various groups.
🎈 Loon is specifically addressing such connectivity limitation via hot-air balloons and is slated to begin providing internet coverage to central Kenya starting next year.
👟 Nike's Tinker Hatfield on designing Air Jordans, creative inspiration, and more in this 25min interview. Similarly here is Oliver Grabes, Design Director at Braun, discussing design.
Until next time,