From my first bicycle to Meccano to my early experiences with computers, I’ve always had an affinity for machines. I find it as easy to think machines have souls as I do people or animals. A human being can work in concert with a machine to become something more than either of them could without the other.
I’ve found this sympathetic approach to machinery offers me insight into all manner of technology, but it also allows me a deeper understanding and a more powerful joy in operating machines.
After millwrighting for a couple of years I’d gotten myself into academics partly because I didn’t want to go home from work filthy every day. Some years later, teaching English, I found that I missed getting my hands dirty and doing something tangible. My return to mechanics began by getting myself qualified as a computer engineering teacher, which in turn introduced me to Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class As Soulcraft. Suddenly my academic background was shedding light on and helping redefine my technical talent.
At the same time I was getting into motorcycling after my mother’s death. She never wanted me on one and neither did my wife. It had taken me 43 years to get to the point where I finally made the decision to ride. Once on motorbikes I discovered that I had a lot of family history in it. I also finally got around to reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which, like Shop Class As Soulcraft, made strong connections between my philosophy degree, my childhood mechanical empathy and my technical skills.
Suddenly, dirty hands weren’t a sign of ignorance, but of enlightenment. Fettling culture is a big part of motorcycling and this gave me an avenue back into the mechanics of my youth. Motorcycling also made for a potentially dangerous physical activity that demanded stringent focus. While out in the wind it’s vital to connect with your machine for both your sakes. The demanding intimacy and exposure of riding only reinforced the importance of mechanical sympathy in order to work in a symbiotic way with your machine.
Mechanical Sympathy is that childhood talent honed by years of experience both working and thinking about technical skill. It is the recognition of a life long obsession finally appreciated. Whether it’s after building a computer network or tuning and riding a perfectly running motorcycle, I’ve come the long way around to the realization that you can find deeper truths by getting your hands dirty.