With great subterfuge and possibly some outright lies, I got Alix through the doors of the Museum of American Precision. This pulsing heart of luddite nerd-dom is in an old mill building in Windsor Vermont where machine tools were engineered and built over the past almost-200 years. There are several collections here but as my interest is in the history of metalworking, their unparalleled group of antique lathes, milling machines, and related tools sang my siren song.
The collection here has examples of machines going back to the early nineteenth century. Some of these machines are outwardly primitive but all are clearly recognizable and exhibit the major forms and concepts still in use in the most sophisticated of today’s tools. I love the puzzle of tracing back improvements to mechanical devices because it leads to pointed and difficult questions of a chicken-vs-egg nature as well as questions about the nature of “natural” vs artificial.
If a prerequisite for making flat surfaces is a truly flat surface or the prerequisite for making precise, repeatable objects a regularly pitched thread, how did the first flat surface or regular screw thread get made? How did we standardize measurements?
On a more philosophical tack, I see the development of tools in a big branched, but connected history from a sharp stick to an iron cooking pot to a pilot-less airplane. In each innovative step we commonly don’t see a stark deviation from “natural” but we very often end up at “clearly artificial”. Where’s the dividing line? That’s all without even adding the layer of value judgment that often comes with either natural or artificial.