Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I’m told my Grandfather was a man ahead of his time. I’ve attended no small number of parties at which people I’d never seen until then assured me they knew him, lamented that he died too soon and regaled me with stories of his wondrous inventions. Wasted on me, I fear. I was too young to retain much of it.
Lucky, then, that he kept such detailed notes! Reams upon reams of them, filled with the most eye wateringly detailed schematics. Of great, ponderous gears. Of wee little cogs. Of pistons, electrical circuits, boilers, and all manner of fascinating mechanisms.
It resonated with me, even then. Something about the intricacy of it all. The symmetrical, rigid elegance of a complicated machine which I could effortlessly envision in motion. How I would study those pages, luxuriating in all of the brilliant little details!
All too often it was my bedtime story, which I read to myself on the nights father worked late. But how I lost myself in it! Page after page of astonishingly precise diagrams. Each one a snapshot of some thought my Grandfather once had. Fragments of his mind, made immortal as ink on paper.
I’ve heard it said that a book is the closest thing to a real ghost: It permits you to step into the psyche of someone who may be long dead. To think their thoughts after the fact, resurrecting some part of that person in your mind for the duration of the book.
Usually whether or not they intended, it reveals something of who they were. An imprint of their soul, if there is such a thing. But then, anyone can leave behind writing. That wasn’t enough for gramps. He did not simply leave behind a book, nor even many. When a man like him dies, what’s left is a grand puzzle.
Sometimes unintentional, as the thoughts of someone like him are indecipherable without considerable education and at least rough knowledge of his or her idiosyncrasies. Not in his case, though. He was very deliberately cryptic. On every page, some of the notes are in plain English, while the rest are in some language I’ve never seen anything comparable to.
Why bother, when the schematics are laid bare? What’s left to hide at that point? If there are any answers to be found, they’re in his journal. Here and there, written around the schematics, are accounts of every day life. Not the sort of things anybody else would have recorded, significant moments in life such as marriage, births, deaths and so on. All of it related to machinery.
“My first sighting of a horseless bus in London was an epiphenal moment. I spent many an idle evening prior to that reading about Francois Isaac De Rivas’ groundbreaking work on motor carriages, but to see one in motion made it real for me.
At last! A compact, practical means of turning stored energy into motion! I know a milestone when I see it. I at once abandoned my own experiments with steam engines, glad to be rid of the mess. Instead, for a time I tinkered with the new thing, internal combustion. Not long now, I thought.”
The page bore technical drawings of what I recognized for early automobile engines fueled by hydrogen, and more recent models which run on petroleum. Yet as the entries went on, he seemed to lose interest in the technology just as soon as he’d been turned on to it.
“Internal combustion won’t do. Noisy, smelly, too much vibration. Then there’s the problem of obtaining fuel. Simply won’t do for what I hope to build.
I’ve overlooked the electric motor for too long, unconvinced of the utility of electricity. But with the advent of alternating current, it now seems possible to transmit energy in a clean, silent, safe manner throughout the superstructure of the machine with minimal losses.
What a wonder it is! A quiet, invisible butler. Or a genie? Able to perform any sort of labor you ask of it, requiring only the correct machine for converting electricity into heat, light, motion, or anything else. This will do. Yes, it will do nicely. Not long now.”
I began to notice patterns. Not just in the cadence of his writing, but that he frequently concluded his entries with “not long now”. Not long until what? The tone changed as the entries progressed, too. He sounded more and more excited. As if he could see something immense and fantastical rushing towards us all. Something which, to the rest of us, is invisible.
“I’ve just returned from a demonstration of the most remarkable invention. Something resembling a cylindrical lightbulb but which performs an altogether more useful function. It’s a sort of switch, triggered by current, which redirects it into one of two channels. The inventor, John Ambrose Fleming, calls it a triode. The press is calling it a vacuum tube.
I’m tempted, but wonder at how useful it can really be to my project. I’ve already designed mechanical computers which can be machined from the same iron as the superstructure. Utilizing triodes would add silicon to the required materials, which means adding a whole floor to the structure just for producing it.
Before I got my hands on Charles Babbage’s notes, I meant to perform all of the computing via pneumatics. Thank goodness I found a way out of that dead end! It’s been a chore trying to keep the size and complexity down. It only deepens my appreciation for the elegance and efficiency of the solutions nature arrives at, when I compare them to my own clumsy efforts.
Whether triodes prove to be worth the added complexity is uncertain. I will have to build my own for evaluation. At least I’ve put fuels, compressed air and other impractical mediums behind me. It’ll be purely electromechanical going forward, which greatly simplifies my work. Not long now.”
I heard the coach driver call for me from upstairs. I let myself get so immersed, I forgot about the poor fellow waiting patiently for me to return with whatever I meant to bring. Grandpa’s will entitles me to his notes and whatever personal effects I care to take from this dusty old workshop...but there isn’t room for much in the coach.
I carefully stepped over great rusty driveshafts, discombobulated control panels filled with gauges and knobs, trailing frayed wires all over the place. A whole wall was given over to storage batteries, simple galvanic cells he must’ve used as a reliable supply of steady current for his experiments. I tried to lift one, but being comprised mostly of lead, I couldn’t so much as budge it from the rack. To one side, I spied the corner of some brittle paper slip poking out, so with great care I withdrew it.
An irritated beep of the carriage horn sent me scrambling up the stairs. Soon enough I’d packed everything from the ramshackle cottage I meant to take with me, and we resumed our journey. On the way, as every little bump in the road jostled me about, I struggled to read through a brittle pamphlet I’d found tucked away with the batteries.
“The Manifesto of Futurism”. A curious screed that the foreword identified as Italian in origin, having since been translated into a number of other languages including English. I could at once see why Grandpa might’ve possessed such materials.
It spoke of machines. Of clean lines, efficiency and speed. It glorified the breakneck pace of technological progress and the virtue of violent, unrestrained ambition. For all of its vigor and bravado, there was a conspicuous lack of warmth. Of recognition for the central importance of life, of human relationships.
“Somethin’ wrong? You look off balance.” The driver peered over his shoulder at me just a bit too long for my liking. I admonished him to return his gaze to the road. Perhaps a bit too harshly? He doesn’t know about the accident.
I intimately recognize the sort of person who writes such material. Enamored with whatever the new thing is. Always in a hurry to inhabit the future, disdainful of the present as though it is already the distant past.
Always immediately tired of their most recent achievement. Never satisfied being who they are, when they are, where they are. Always baffled as to why they’re perpetually unhappy. Unable, despite their intellect, to recognize the loop they are stuck in which deprives them of comfort and familiarity.
What a banal way to be. Relentless, a sort of mania which grips the mind, permitting no respite. No weakness is tolerated, no inefficiency. No color, nothing vague or sentimental. Machine men, as I once heard them described. With machine hearts, and machine minds.
To think that I came from such stock! Yet I detest automobiles. The cacophony of honking horns, screeching tires, sputtering engines and shouted vulgarities. The speed, the confusion and fear. All too fast, out of control, lives hanging in the balance.
Like those of my parents. I am not so blind to the workings of my own heart that I fail to recognize the role their deaths played in my lingering disdain for the automobile. I was too young to understand it at the time. All just a stupefying blur of sound and movement.
Peaceful at first. The subtle rumble of the engine. A gentle shake as we passed over each bump. Then excited shouting, followed immediately by screams. The whole car lurched. From the back seat I caught momentary glare from the other car’s headlights between the silhouettes of my mother and father....just before it smashed them into jelly.
I witnessed only a split second of it. How easily a pair of colliding metal hulks can tear someone apart. How effortlessly the wreckage impales their soft bodies. What fragile creatures we are, in the end. I’m told I was found wedged in the space behind and under the back seat. Anywhere else and I’d be with my parents now.
A long, terrible, cold journey awaited me in the aftermath. Step by step through the gauntlet of suffering that follows unbearable loss. Without knowing anything else about a man, by looking in his eyes you can know in an instant if he’s been down that path as well. Doesn’t matter how long ago, the changes are permanent.
Seems surreal that life goes on. That you could be gutted so completely, busted down to nothing so many years ago, yet be sitting here today in perfect health. An absurdity! Nearly tantamount to pretending that it never occurred.
But life kept happening to me regardless. I kept waking up each morning, kept putting food in my mouth, chewing and swallowing it. Damn me. Not strong enough to live, nor strong enough to die. That’s how it happened. Unbelievably, I recovered. More or less.
The hardest thing was accepting the authenticity of it. That I’d not somehow fooled myself but was really, at long last, re-engaging with life. An insult to their memory is how it seemed to me at the time. That I failed to spend the rest of my days in rags, weeping in some forgotten corner, and instead was restored to some semblance of sobriety.
Stay tuned for Part 2!