Today is the 100th anniversary of the adoption by the United States Army of John Moses Browning’s .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, the weapon known since as the Model 1911 or simply “the .45”. Browning designed many of the last century’s best-known guns: the ones that you see in your mind when you think “cowboy rifle” or “machine gun,” and “automatic rifle” among others. Paul Mauser had definitively solved the problem of the repeating rifle already in 1898; his design has yet to be improved significantly.
So today, the newest and most advanced military technology of the Great War is still in use daily for sport and war. It’s not just weapons, either. Trains and their tracks have changed little. Mechanical clocks and watches are a solved problem. There is a long list of mostly hidden devices around us, the design of which has scarcely changed since then.
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This centenarian mechanical layer can be described and mostly created with the information in Machinery’s Handbook, a 2,104 page double handful of small print and diagrams. Detailed description of tools and materials, hundreds of mathematical tables, weights and measures, testing, ratios for all sorts of gears and transmissions, pipe fitting, the whole mess of machine lore is dumped into this box. Paging through the handbook, one gets the feeling that the mechanical parts of modern civilization are all here.
With this knowledge, a source of power, and sufficient raw materials one could in theory build almost anything a wood-and-metal bashing factory makes. And most of it is still a century or more old. Lathes, screws, blowtorches, springs, grinders are all from John Browning’s world, and he wouldn’t take long to adjust to a 2011 machine shop.
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The people reading this do not live in Browning’s factory. Welds, springs, bolts, castings, threadings, gears, and bearings surround us, ignored. The modern first world service industry worker lives from the neck up, floating in front of a screen. The entire world view is defined by a screen full of media filtered through an imagination. Technology is software, and a layer down it’s microelectronics.
This attitude shows up dramatically when our modern Internet resident is confronted with a problem from Browning’s world. When something goes amiss with wheat, or steel, or ships and trains, Internet Person looks for solutions on the screen, or assumes that they’ll arrive. The idea of technological improvement itself “ends” arguments about scarce resources and decaying infrastructure. Mechanisms themselves are taken for granted or reduced to the level of weekend hobbies.
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We’re still in Browning’s world, though. If one 21st century digital ape dislikes another, a quick reset to a century ago is in the glovebox, and an intricate machine will slap a tiny brass box of explosives into place, set off the little bomb, and send a chunk of lead a off on a surprisingly fast and accurate journey to an even more surprising distance, causing an unpleasantly surprising wound on arrival. Surprise! Everything old is new again! And almost faster than we can see, it’s ready to do so again. The promise of an elegant software solution to our problems just faded a bit.
Take a look at Machinery’s Handbook once in a while. You may not care about Browning’s world, but it cares about you.