The Wheel of Fortune

Connections, Season 1, Episode 5

November 14, 1978

The power to see into the future with computers originally rested with priest-astronomers who knew the proper times to plant and harvest. The constellations influenced life spectacularly, particularly when the ailing Caliph of Baghdad was cured by an astrologer using Greek lore. His ancient medical secrets were translated and spread throughout Europe, ushering in an era of scientific inquiry. The need for more precise measuring devices in navigation gave rise to the pendulum clock, the telescope, forged steel and interchangeable machine parts—the basis of modern industry.



What you’re looking at is a bit of paper with holes in it. How’s that for a spectacular way to start a program? But this may be the most important bit of paper with holes in it since the hole was invented. It’s a punchcard, and it stands for one of the most meaningful inventions Man has ever given himself: the computer. In most people’s everyday life the computer isn’t much more than a very fast adding machine. It tends to send you bills. But it is very much more than that. The modern world could not function without computers because they operate everything from production lines, to telephone exchanges, to traffic systems, to international finance.


But the main reason why computers matter to you and me and our future is because they have perfect memories. They never forget anything they’re told about you and me—the kind of data, say, you have to give somebody if you want a bank account or credit, or to be able to vote or buy a house, or if you’ve been accused of a crime. And that’s why computers contain the future within them. If you tell a computer everything about a group of people, it’ll juggle the mix and come up with the one factor that is most likely to affect the decision that group will make about something one way or the other. Knowing that is knowing the future. And that is power. But in whose hands?


This computer has a particularly spectacular kind of memory of the past and knowledge of the future in its databanks. Watch this.


This computer runs a planetarium, and so it handles as a matter of simple routine the universe—as far forward in time as you like or back. How would you like the beginning of everything?


Or here’s one full turn of the Earth: tomorrow, in fifteen seconds.


Now, the reason I’m sharing all this fun and games is not because I’m some kind of astronomy freak, it’s because the very first time mankind gained the power to see into the future like the computer can now, that power was in the hands of the priest astronomers over 3,000 years ago. And look what that led to. First, the moon.


Roughly every twelve times you saw this happen—the waxing and waning of the moon—you were back where you started in terms of planting or harvesting or irrigation: once a year. So the priest’s astronomers were able to tell the farmers: plant now. Now, the more they looked up at the moon, the more they learned about the stars. And so, by the fifth century B.C., they had identified and named most of the major constellations. Twelve of them, stretching across the sky: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces. So they divided the sky into twelve sections: six in one hemisphere, six in the other. They called these sections houses, and gave the houses power over life, health, money, love, and so on.


So which house a constellation was in affected life on Earth, they said. Now, the more this astrology stuff became popular, the more the astronomers saw. They saw, for instance, that besides the sun and the moon, there were five other things in the sky that moved like this. So they called them the wanderers—in Greek: planeta. Planets.


So by the second century A.D., this is the kind of stuff the astronomers were turning out. It’s a copy of a bit of an astronomical best-seller by a fellow called Claudius Ptolemy. It’s a star table. There’s the name of the star, which constellation it’s in, how many degrees up in the sky, which hemisphere, how bright. And he did that for 1,022 stars. But it was still the old magic that got the crowds on their feet, especially the magic of being able to predict something like this.


So by the Middle Ages they thought they’d got a pretty clear idea of the kind of universe they’d got. I say “they”—we didn’t. Up here in cold, windy northern Europe we were too busy just trying to get through the Dark Ages in one piece. But the Arabs did. And they’d learnt it from the Persians and the Indians. Take a look at this.


This is a mechanical version of an Arabic universe we built so we could crank it around. First, for very obvious reasons, they thought the Earth—here, where I am now—was at the center of everything. All around it, out in space, was a gigantic crystal sphere carrying the constellations and rotating slowly. Inside that were another seven crystal spheres, also rotating, each one carrying a different planet. Closest to the Earth, they thought, was the moon, then Mercury, then Venus, then came the sun, and beyond that Mars, and then Jupiter, and finally Saturn.


If you were an Arab, all this was vital because it told you in which direction Mecca (the holy city) lay, and it told you what time it was so that you could pray when you should. Because they had this. It’s a kind of heavenly computer called an astrolabe. Each one of these little points represents a star, and you can move the whole lot so that you can reproduce what you see in the sky on a particular night. And when you’ve done that, the astrolabe will tell you what the date is. On the other side there are these two little sights. You line the sights up on a star, then you read the angle off there, and you look that angle up in your star tables, and they tell you that the star will be at that angle at a certain time of night—accurate to within a minute. And, of course, if you know what direction a star is in, you can work out where Mecca is.


So the Arabs were able to say where everything in the sky would be throughout the year at any time, day or night. I mean, take, for example, dawn on September 14th, 714 A.D.: at that point, Venus would’ve been up in the third house—let’s get it up there—Mercury would’ve been in the second house, and everybody else would’ve been clustered in the first house together with the constellation Virgo, except for Jupiter, which would’ve been down below the horizon in the twelfth house.


So since this vast universe was so powerful—I mean, the sun made plants grow and the stars changed with the seasons—everybody reckoned that the sky ruled all life on Earth. So if you got sick, say, a great deal hung on what was in the sky when you were born. And that’s why dawn on September 14th, 714, matters so much. It was the birthday of a the caliph Al-Mansur, the founder of Baghdad who, in 765, got as sick as a dog and couldn’t be cured. And what happened because of that is one of the most extraordinary accidents in history.


You see, up in the mountains a few hundred miles away, at a place called Jundi-shapur there was a monastery that had a medical school. And finally, in desperation, the director of the medical school was invited down, and he promptly cured the caliph. And he probably used astrology to do it. See, astrologers reproduce what was in the sky on a chart very much like the ones in your daily paper. Each planet or constellation was supposed to have power over, oh, metals, plants, medicine, your career, your life, disease—you name it, they ruled. So any medical astrologer looking at the caliph’s birth horoscope would’ve said, “Wow, look at this lot here in one influential group, and in the house of life.” I mean, Virgo gives you stomach trouble, Saturn gives you a hernia, Mars gives you ulcers, and the moon makes you vomit. So diagnosis would’ve been a piece of cake!


Now, you may think that’s a lot of garbage. So do I. But history records that Al-Mansur actually did have stomach trouble. Well, he was up and about in no time, and Jundi-shapur became a very popular place. And that’s when it happened. Because when the Arabs turned up for a look around, they found it stuffed full of manuscripts containing a vast amount of ancient Greek knowledge, which they jumped at and started translating—knowledge that might’ve been lost to us forever if Al-Mansur hadn’t gone sick. Because as Arab civilization moved west across the Mediterranean, it took that knowledge with it, and a belief in a mechanical universe whose signs could be read for the benefit of mankind trapped inside it.


The new knowledge was to take us out of the treadmill of ignorance and put us in charge of our lives in a way we’d never been before, especially when the amazing new Arab translations of medical stuff got to pox-ridden Europe. The first European medical unit was set up at Salerno in Italy in the eleventh century, complete with do-it-yourself instruction manuals like this lot. Salerno had its first big success as a medieval mash—you know, crusaders stopping off on their way back for repairs, and then moving on to tell the folks at home all about this amazing new thing called curing people. Well, to the Europeans—so short of medical knowledge that, with any disease, you tended to get seriously dead—this was something they had to have. And in their new universities, one of the two really avant-garde things to study became doctoring.


The other academic turn-on was also due to the Muslims. When the Christians took Toledo back from the Spanish Arabs in 1105, they found libraries stacked with astronomy books, which the king promptly ordered translated. You could hear the sound of scribbling and excitement all over Europe. Remember those star tables of Ptolemy’s? That sort of stuff was turning up. Well, by the thirteenth century, anybody studying the new medicine and astronomy was into what we would call scientific investigation: a hard-nosed approach to things that definitely underwhelmed one very heavy bunch of people.


See, these were the days of the great clerical carve-up between the traditionalists in the Church and the new thinkers who got turned on by the new science. On the one hand, the traditionalists (who said: listen, all you have to is believe, and whatever the early church fathers wrote, that’s the horse’s mouth) and on the other, the new thinkers (who reckoned that if something didn’t stand up to analysis and argument, then you couldn’t trust it, no matter who it was). Well, that kind of made the traditionalists foam at the mouth. To them it was revolutionary claptrap, though to us this new view is obvious. If you can examine the sky and the human body and find out how they worked, was there any limit to what you could do? Why believe anything unless you could prove it? Our modern approach to learning starts here. But what drove the traditionalists bananas was that these guys were even suggesting you could apply the same experimental approach to what God was.


Worst of all, they said this: you compare one holy writer with another on some crucial point, and they don’t agree. Put yourself in the Pope’s position with all these guys rocking the boat. There was only one thing to do: invent the Inquisition—and we all know what that got up to: very nasty stuff.


Now, while some of the knowledge coming in via the Arabs was causing the church a load of trouble, some of it was about to help solve a really serious problem. The problem the church had was telling the time. You see, the church had rules that, if you were a monk, you had to say certain prayers at certain hours of the day and night, and as a monk your salvation depended on doing that properly. So knowing what time it was was vital. Now, in the Mediterranean, in the south, they had sundials and they had candles. Now, they had both up here in northern Europe, too, but the problem with the sundial in northern Europe is that there’s not very much sun. It’s cloudy a lot of the time. And as for candles—well, at the time they were very expensive, and they did sometimes tend to burn places down.


Now, the only way we know how they solved the problem of getting the prayer right at the right time was because of a chronicle written by a monk called Jocelyn de Brakelond. And he lived in the abbey church of Bury St. Edmunds in England, where the body of St. Edmund was buried, so it was a very important church. Anyway, he says that one night, June 23rd, 1198, everybody in the abbey was awakened by the sound of the most gigantic fire. And they raced out, terrified, and sure enough, the whole place was going up in smoke. It was a major catastrophe. And he says, “The young men among us ran, some to the well and some to the clock.” Now, the reason they ran to a clock to put the fire out was because they were using a water clock. And that’s fine by day, but who wakes you up at night and says, “Excuse me, it’s five o’clock and you’ve got to do the particular prayer?”


Now, we haven’t known for centuries how they solved the problem of waking up in the middle of the night until recently, when a fragment of an eleventh-century manuscript was discovered in a monastery in the Pyrenees. And in this fragment it said (in Latin, of course): this is how you build a water-powered alarm clock. So we did. We think it’s the only one in the world. And you know what? It works!


I think it’s fantastic. Here’s the reservoir of water. Running water coming down here at a very carefully controlled speed fills the reservoir here. There’s a float down in there, and on top of the float is this shaft, and on the shaft there are teeth. Now, as the float rises slowly, these teeth engage in this cog system here, on the face of the clock, and that turned the clock very slowly. And for daytime, there’s your clock: you know what time it is. Now, for your alarm call at night you take a little sliver of metal like that, and you stick it in one of these slits around the outside of the clock face, depending what time you want—like, say, three o’clock in the morning. And when three o’clock in the morning comes around, that little metal sliver rises just and touches this ledge here, and trips it as it goes by, causing this tiny weight to swing down here, pulling this noose off that restraining arm. Now, once the noose is off that restraining arm, this shaft here spins round and round. Now, it does that because in here it’s got rope wound round and round it, and that rope’s attached to some very heavy weights. So when the shaft is freed, the weights fall, and the shaft spins. And when it does, this bit here goes forward and hits the bell, and that’s your alarm call. And who said genius was simple? Look at it in action.


Great showbiz! But the trouble was: in winter, the water still froze. So it wasn’t until about 1280 that somebody came up with a brilliant idea of getting rid of the water completely and using only the weights to power the clock. The system that made that idea feasible was probably one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind: the verge and foliot.


This is it. You see this wheel with teeth in it? Well, it’s being turned by a weight and a piece of rope wrapped around a shaft, just like the one in the alarm clock. It’s not whizzing around so fast because it’s being held in check by the verge and foliot system I told you about. Look: this is the verge bit, and it has a blade there which comes in and catches the teeth, and stops the wheel moving a second, like that. Now, every time it does that, it’s then kicked away by the wheel, because the wheel’s being pulled by the main weight. And when that happens, another blade down at the bottom catches in the teeth, and holds the wheel for another split second, before it, too, is kicked away. And the two blades alternate between them, back and forth, holding the wheel back all the time. And as they operate you can hear the sound with which the world has become familiar over the last 700 years: the sound of tick-tock, tick-tock.


By 1400, what had started as a machine to tell people when to pray had become a machine for telling people when to work.


Towns all over Europe got clocks. And when they rang, you moved. And you moved until they rang again, when you stopped. Does that idea ring a bell? This was also when we got our twelve-hour clock. Because striking twenty-four for one of these monsters was much too complicated. The new clocks made the towns more efficient and production went up. Okay, put yourself back then—say, in the position of a successful merchant or businessman, riding high on the late medieval economic boom. All around you, towns are running their businesses with clocks like these in their towers. Time is becoming money. So what do you want? You want time. But you don’t want it like that, up a tower. You want it in your pocket. So there must’ve been a very ready market around when some craftsmen round about 1450–1460 made the next great step. He might even have been, say, a locksmith. Because if you look at the locks of the time, you’ll see that they work—they stay open or they stay closed—because of the power of that: bending metal. So the spring is a concept I’m talking about. But it was what you do with this spring that was really clever.


You see, a spring has problems. When it’s wound up tight, it starts to unwind, it’s working very powerfully, strongly. As it unwinds it becomes weaker and weaker. So if you’re going to get a spring to work, you have to make sure that it’s given the hard work at the beginning and the easy work at the end. Now, in clocks, this is how they did that. They put the spring inside a barrel—there’s the barrel—and the spring is connected to the barrel, so that as the spring unwinds, the barrel turns. Now, coiled round the outside of the barrel there’s cat gut or chain, in this case. And that chain is then taken across over here and wound round and round the main drive shaft of the clock. But you see that? That drive shaft is tapered so that, as the chain unwinds, the first parts unwind down here, where the hard work has to be done by the spring, and then, as it weakens, it’s unwinding further and further up the shaft until, right at the top, the easiest work is being done; the position it’s in now, as a matter of fact. Now, that threaded shaft there is called a fusee. And if you’re ever looking at your wristwatch one day and wondering why you’re a slave to it, blame the fusee. That’s where it all started.


These spring-driven clocks were, as you would expect, instant raving success. I mean, imagine being given something like that, when the world you live in is full of bears and wolves and dark forests and muddy tracks and thatched roofs. It must’ve been like one of us getting a personal interstellar spacecraft to play with and park round behind the house. Most of these medieval mechanical marvels came from the same town in southern Germany that this one did—because it’s called a Nuremberg egg.


Okay, enough of the tourist bit. On with the story. Nuremberg was good at clock-making because it was good at metalwork, because it was in the greatest mining area in Europe: gold, silver, iron, copper. So it was very, very rich, and it had the best craftsmen in Europe. They used to boast that your average burgher here lived better than the king of Scotland. Nuremberg was also on a main road, so a lot of people came through. In most cases they came for the expertise that the craftsmen here guarded so jealously, keeping their earnings up by keeping other craftsmen out of town. At one end of the scale they produced some of the best armor around. At the other, extremely delicate and extremely expensive trinkets like this. Nuremberg became a center for research into metallurgy. And since they also ran silver mines, they also had the biggest banking corporations in Europe. They lent money to everybody—to finance their wars, and then made even more money by selling them a nice little line in weapons they also made. And where have we heard that trick before?


But the point of all this, I hear you ask? Well, because Nuremberg was so well placed to make fantastically complex clocks like this, it started turning out instruments that were just as accurate: sky-watching instruments. Thanks to the locksmiths and the clockmakers, you could now look at the sky in such detail with the new, improved instruments, you began to see that there was something wrong with the old idea of the Earth being at the center of everything.


This frightening possibility took Europe by storm. Up north, everybody was talking about it. Down south—here, in Italy—nobody was. Or, if they were, they made sure they were alone. Well, most of them did, except one. Which is why our story takes us next to the Italian cathedral city of Pisa. And this is where the Catholic church comes into the picture. It was probably a man called Hans Lipperhey, a spectacle-maker who lived in Holland, who is as responsible as anybody for kicking the whole thing off. Because in 1603 he offered this to the Dutch army for use in the battlefield. He called it his “looker,” we call it a telescope. A year later, in 1609, one was in the hands of Galileo. And from the very first moment that he looked through it at the night sky, our view of where we stand in the universe changed. Because what Galileo saw confirmed what the Polish astronomer Copernicus had been saying (theoretically) for sixty years: that the Earth was not the center of the universe with everything going round it.


Galileo saw something that shook him rigid: Jupiter. That was okay, but with moons going round it? So if Jupiter was the center for its moons, that blew the idea that the Earth was the center of everything. When Galileo published what he thought, the result was the Inquisition and house arrest until the day he died. In those days you simply did not question what the Catholic church said. And the Catholic church said that the Earth was the center of everything.


However, something else Galileo wrote about wasn’t quite so revolutionary—so it didn’t get suppressed, so people got to hear about it. It was something he noticed that was to turn out to be the solution to another problem that the telescope created. You see, now astronomers had these things to observe with, they needed better clocks than they had to time the movements of the planets they were watching. And over a long period of time, a spring-driven clock was just not good enough.


According to the legend, this was what Galileo noticed, here in Pisa Cathedral, one day in 1581. Out of curiosity he timed the length of the swing on his pulse, and he noticed that the length of time it took the lamp to swing was exactly the same whether it was a big swing or, as the swing lessened, a little swing. In other words, it was an extremely accurate unit of measurement.


Well, neither in Pisa nor anywhere else in Italy did Galileo do very much about his observation. It took somebody from a northern country—a Protestant country with no fear of the Inquisition—to take things to their logical conclusion. He was an astronomer, too, and he needed an accurate clock just like everybody else. His name was Christiaan Huygens, a Dutchman. And in 1556 he produced this: a pendulum.


You remember the verge and foliot system; the very first mechanical clock system? The one that had a big weight pulling a wheel with teeth on it, and the teeth were held in check, one at a time, by a rod with blades that went like this as the wheel was pulled round? Well, instead of using a swinging weight to give those blades the power to hold the wheel, Huygens used the swinging power of the pendulum. So as the pendulum swung, the blades went hold-release, hold-release, hold-release. Very accurate indeed. So it solved all the problems the astronomers had.


But there was another bunch of stargazers who couldn’t use that system. They were sailors who had to know the time. And the reason they couldn’t use this system? Well, you try a pendulum clock on a pitching sea, and you’ll get the point: the pendulum goes all over the place!


Now, the reason why navigators had to be able to tell the time was that, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the trade routes to America and to India had been opened up, and the great maritime empires were really going—the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the English. And in that order, their governments offered really big money for anybody who would come up with a way to help their navigators tell the time. Here’s why. Each navigator had a book of star tables with him, and what those star tables told him was the position of any star or the moon at any particular hour of any particular day during the year. And if he observed a star, he would check the position of it in the sky—seventy degrees up, so many degrees to north or south. Then he’d go and look in his book. And the book would say: well, if that’s where it is at this particular time, then that means you’re in the only place where you would see it in that position. Therefore, you must be at X. That would be his position.


Now, the problem with that is that those star tables were only made to be used when you were going either north or south in the same time zone. Suppose you, say, go out into Atlantic, west towards America, say, to a point where the sun comes up an hour later than when you left home: then all your measurements are an hour out. So you look at your star tables, and the star tables tell you information that is okay for when you left home, but not for where it’s actually an hour later. And in terms of distance, the Earth turns one thousand miles during an hour. So your position is one thousand miles out. And even if you got the time right to within one minute, you’d still be fifteen miles off course. Fifteen miles off course—you miss the place you’re going to, you don’t get the cargo you’ve been sent to pick up. And that kind of thing was happening all the time. They were absolutely desperate to get a clock to those navigators that would tell them what time it was back home, so that they could make the necessary alterations in their star tables. And the one thing it couldn’t be was a pendulum clock.


So where have we got? The sick caliph, the Arab science that turned on European monks, their need for alarm clocks, up came the spring, fancy metalwork followed, and skywatching instruments like the telescope, and then the pendulum clock that timed the planets, but was useless for navigators. Their need to get the position of the moon in the sky or a star right demanded a better clock spring. And that need triggered off a series of events that begins with a spring, but ends, typically, somewhere different. It starts of all places here, in a glassmaking furnace in Sheffield, and it ends with something that was good for the muscles, thanks to the way all these bits and pieces on this table go together.


You see, the steel in the springs was made by piling up alternate layers of iron bars and charcoal, and keeping the pile hot for, oh, anything up to a week. The carbon in the charcoal diffused into the surface of the iron, and made a layer of steel. Now, you knock those layers off, and then you hammer them together, and what you come up with is laminated steel made up of the compressed layers. Now, when you coil that steel into a spring, you’ve given yourself a problem. Because of the different qualities of the different layers, the spring tends to unwind irregularly. Now, if only you could melt the layers, they would all run together and form a steel of uniform strength. But in 1740, who could melt steel? Well, the glassmakers who worked in this place could—only they didn’t know it. Until a clockmaker called Benjamin Huntsman came along and noticed that the local glassmakers were putting old bits of glass into their furnaces and managing to melt them because they lined the walls of these places with a kind of clay that reflected the heat back into the furnace. And that sent the temperature way up.


The first thing Huntsman did was to make pots out of that clay, because it could stand terrific heat. Then he’d put these pots into one of the amazing new coke furnaces. And here’s where he pinched the glassmakers’ technique. He put bits of old steel into the pots, left the lot to simmer at very high temperature, and after five hours (instead of a week) the pots came out of the furnace full of white-hot melted steel that was just the stuff for clock springs—and, as it turned out, a lot of other things. So the glass industry helped solve Huntsman’s problem.


The new steel also, incidentally, gave Sheffield steel cutlery its start in life, and that’s a clue to what else it did, too. Because at the time, navigation instruments had become really very precise. Look at this sextant: this is the viewing tube. You put your eye at that end, and you look, let’s say, for the moon. At the other end, half of it’s glass, and you see the moon through that. The other half of it’s a little mirror. And you also see the moon reflected in there because of this main reflecting mirror here. It picks up the image of the moon, sends it down to the tiny mirror, and back into your eye. So that when you look at the moon, you actually see two moons, one almost superimposed on the other. To find how high the moon is in the sky, you come down until you’re looking at the horizon, and then, using this rod, you tilt the main reflecting mirror back gradually until it picks up the moon again. And now you see a horizon and a moon. The angle at which you had to tilt that main mirror back to find the moon is the angle at which the moon is up in the sky. It’s a very precise instrument. But it is only as precise as those scales down there off which you read the angle. And that’s where he comes in: Jesse Ramsden.


Jesse Ramsden was the fellow who invented (or stole) a way of marking a scratch every sixth of a degree on a sextant. And he did it with a screw. See how the foot pedal pulls a cord wound round the screw? That turns the screw an exact number of times, moving a big, flat, circular plate round exactly a sixth of a degree. Each time, you mark the instrument clamped on top of the plate. Ramsden’s machine came out in 1774, cut the price of marking instruments by fifty times, won him a prize, and put him on the road to riches. This was the secret of Ramsden’s success: the idea of using a screw to measure like that. But you can only get a good screw when you wanted one thanks to what was going on in the furniture business.


You know all that knobbly seventeenth-century furniture with bulbous legs? Well, that happened because of some unknown woodturner doing things to this, the pole lathe. Here’s the springy pole. Fix a strap to it, wind it round the wood, and cut on every other turn. Now, if you give the turner something to rest his knife on that’s the same shape as the leg you want, he can cut it to a pattern. Jesse Ramsden realized that if you cut a table leg by following a table leg pattern, then you should cut a screw by following a screw pattern. So this—at least in principle—is what he did: he mounted a cutter on a base that had a threaded hole in it, and through the threaded hole he put the master screw he wanted to copy, so that as he turned the master screw, the cutter moved along it. Now, with the workpiece turning on the lathe at exactly the same speed as the master screw, the cutter made an exact copy. All Ramsden had to find was a cutter that would make screw after screw without going blunt. And there was only one metal around that was remotely hard enough to do that job. Yes: Huntsman’s steel.


So, by 1797, all the ingredients in this story I’ve just told you were waiting around (as so often happens in history) for somebody to put them together—which, of course, somebody did. And this is another one of those rare times when somebody sees beyond the bits and pieces. In 1800, Henry Maudslay put the edge of Huntsman’s steel together with Ramsden’s idea of using the screw to measure with, and came up with a machine that would cut metal to within a ten-thousandth of an inch—because he was a precision freak. And he realized a screw that accurate would guide a cutter to make anything else that accurate. And curiously, that was great news for the navy.


You see, at the time, boats used things called blocks by the thousand: complicated bits of wood with pulley wheels inside. Great for sailors with no muscles, because it gives you a pull three times your own strength. In 1800, a fellow called Brunel got Maudslay to use his precision machinery to make other machines that would make blocks. The British navy jumped at the idea. By 1808 in Portsmouth dockyard, this was happening.


It may look like a bunch of dusty old guys cutting wood to you, but this is the beginnings of an idea that runs your life today. Maudslay built a long line of machines, each of which did one job. From a tree trunk the wood was sawn into wooden cubes, and as it passed from one machine to the next the block was gradually shaped and drilled and contoured one step at a time, and so where the wooden pulley wheels that fitted inside it. It took 43 separate machines to finish the job, and 43 men, each doing just one job over and over again. Sound familiar?


With Maudslay’s line of machines, each one doing just part of the operation, you’ve got yourself the ability to shove raw material in at one end of the line, run the whole thing from one power shaft spinning up above, and pick up the finished product as it comes off the last machine. I’m sure you recognize this for what it is. And it was the world’s first. Everybody went crazy about the idea—everybody, that is, except the craftsmen machines like these would put out of work. But four thousand miles away, this system was just what the doctor ordered. See, the British were putting the screws on America with a naval blockade, and the Americans desperately needed to make their own goods. And, short of manpower, the first thing they did was grab that factory system idea.


This is the other thing Americans were doing at the time: making guns. Take a close look at this rifle. This bit here is called the breach block. Now, there’s the trigger. You pull the trigger, the spring inside releases this hammer here, carrying a bit of flint. The flint jumps forward, hits that metal, causes sparks. The sparks cause the powder in that little shelf to ignite. The flame goes through that tiny hole, ignites the main charge inside the gun, and causes the bullet to be fired down the barrel.


Complicated bit of workmanship, wouldn’t you say? And that, at the end of the eighteenth century, is just what America couldn’t do. She didn’t have enough skilled men. And that put the country in a real hole, because at the time they were importing most of their guns from us Europeans. And half the time they were on the edge of war with us. So what did they do? They came up with a way of making handcrafted weapons without making handcrafted weapons. And that’s why this isn’t what it appears to be. See, it’s not made by hand, it’s made by machine.


It was a European idea, oh, rather like that Portsmouth blockmaking system that went over like a lead balloon in Britain. Only this time, it was in France. A fellow called Honoré Blanc, who was getting zero interest from his fellow Frenchmen, told the American ambassador about his idea—Thomas Jefferson—who promptly went bananas, wrote to the folks back home, and they jumped at the idea. Let me tell you in principle what that idea turned out to be.


It was to get a machine to do all the clever work, so you don’t need a skilled operator. See what’s happening? The machine cuts only so far and stops. So the guy working the machine doesn’t need any skill. And the reason the machine knows what he doesn’t is because you use a master of the shape you want to cut to set the machine. So every time the drills and the knives go so far, and no further. So every time you get an identical piece cut—in metal or in wood.


That was Blanc’s idea, picked up here in New England by Eli Whitney and John Hall and Simeon North to make each part of a gun on a machine set to make that part, and that part only, over and over again. Now, the result of that idea was that, if your gun went kablooey in the middle of a battle, you just got out your little screwdriver and did this. And any other block will do, because they’re standard shape. And because they’re standard, they’re interchangeable. And if that doesn’t blow your mind, well, it should. And in almost everything you possess, you only have because of the way those guns were made by machines. Have you ever heard of a one-off handcrafted television set?


So anyway, when these two great ideas got together—the factory system the textile manufacturers were using and the interchangeability idea that the gunmakers were into—America really took off. And look what the country had going for it: [???] coming out of your ears, mountains of raw materials, and a uniquely American way of using machine tools. The humble machine tool probably did more to make America great than almost anything else. Because although each machine tool only did one thing, like grinding or boring or drilling, all machine tools had to solve the same general problems—control systems, gearing, power transmission—so that what you learned in making machine tools you could use when you made the machines for the machine tools. And what you got from that was a kind of technical cascade from guns to sewing machines to bicycles to cars. I mean, did you know that Cadillac started with bicycles? Anyway, by the end of the nineteenth century, American machines were so good, the only thing that wasn’t was the people.


The fellow who helped to turn people into machines used to go berserk watching bricklayers work—or rather, not work. He was an American engineer, a guy called Frank Gilbreth, who studied expert oyster openers, swordsmen, typists, you name it, and got all fussed up about how disorganized ordinary people’s work was. So he and his psychologist wife set out putting things right. They looked at the way people moved when they did a job, put lights on their hands, filmed the action, and then used the films to make 3D models of the movement so they could redesign moves so as to make the jobs more efficient. They even put a grid everywhere to measure the movement down to the inch. This was world champion typist, Ms. Hortense Stolnitz, showing just what she could do.


And you know how the surgeon says, “Forceps!” and the nurse slaps it into his hand? That was one of the Gilbreths’ ideas, too. Everywhere they went, they took a job to bits and put it together again in a way that saved time. Time and motion was their thing.


Bored out of your skull at work? Thank the Gilbreths. To be fair to them, they ran their own lives the same way, had twelve kids, and wrote a book about it called Cheaper by the Dozen.


So here we are at the modern production line because:

  1. knowledge of the sky apparently cured that Arab caliph.
  2. The Arabs got excited by astronomy and translated Greek books on it and medical astrology and other science.
  3. That knowledge helped the church to find a way to make alarm clocks that spread and took over people’s working lives.
  4. The pendulum that still left sailors looking for a good spring made of steel that,
  5. cut screws for precision work that,
  6. built machines to make blocks for warships thanks to putting the machines in,
  7. a long production line setup that led to,
  8. the manufacturing system that helps to give us all the same possessions.


Made by people doing identical things with identical machines to make everything from cars to gingerbread men for everybody, not just the privileged few.


This place, America, is a democracy of common possession. And the rest of the industrial world is rapidly going that way, too. But there's a price: the way our lives have to become an extension of the production line. We work together, we holiday together, we sit in the same traffic jams together, we wear the same clothes, we live in the same house, we drive the same car, we have the same ambitions.


That's the price, watching the clock. And ironically, we're back with a question they were asking at the beginning of this program: what happens to individuality? Oh sure, superficially it's there. My car is a different color from yours, I watch a different television program from you. But empty your pockets and see what you get: a pen, a watch, checkbook, some money, credit card, keys, driving license, comb, some money, lighter. The paraphernalia of people's private lives. And yet, is there one object here that thousands of other people don't own? All of it made by machine, not one object uniquely, individually me. And if I'm not here, where am I?

The Wheel of Fortune

James Burke

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