Grammar of Mechanisms

In the eighteenth century, the Swedish inventor and industrialist Christopher Polhem organized a set of seventy-nine mechanical elements into an “alphabet” of wooden models. His idea was that the individual elements — lever, pulley, gear, and so on — could serve as building blocks for more complex constructions, on the model of letters forming the atomic units for words. Polhem is largely forgotten to the history of technology. But at the time he proposed it, his project fit into two broad and powerful movements: the pursuit of universal language schemes; and the widespread speculation about the universality of machines.

In May 2013, Bill Turkel and Rob MacDougall organized a hands-on session that picked up on the idea of a grammar of machines. As part of the Materiality conference held at York, they used LEGO Technics to reprise elements of Polhem’s project, exploring the ways that simpler mechanisms could be recombined and remixed to create new and more complicated ones. While acknowledging their limitations for investigating historical machinery, those tools turned out to be an excellent resource to prototype and think with. They used it to spur a broader discussion about modelling historical mechanisms, connections with 3D printing, tacit knowledge, and the idea of an “adjacent possible.”

If you’re at all interested in questions of fabrication, digital methods or alternative methodologies in history, stay tuned to these pages. In the meantime, check out Turkel and MacDougall’s work, featured in Kevin Kee’s new edited volume, Past Play, for a constant source of inspiration.