When I started thinking of engineering as art, my relationship to it improved dramatically. It was no longer an unachievable pinnacle of reason and logic, but a fluid artform, which I was free to explore in all of its different styles and movements.
I realized that my engineering education here in the US taught me just one of many possible styles of engineering, with textbooks largely filled with European examples and historical figures. So I started looking for areas where that one style had restricted my creativity. The first area I explored was stiffness and flexibility, through a post that Spencer included in the 2020-07-06 issue. Though flexible designs are perfectly viable, I’d always been taught to avoid flexibility. Just that one small change led me down some interesting paths and towards designs that felt more “me.”
I want to continue that exploration, learning about different engineering and manufacturing styles than the ones I learned in school — techniques from places with different histories and cultural values. If nothing else, I hope the links below at least get you excited about finding your own style.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~4% of opens) was a history of biscuit manufacturing in India. Join the Members' Slack today to plug into a network that goes deep on the history of manufacturing. Last week our Reading Group had our first conversation about The Fabric of Civilization, and dug into how sericulture (the cultivation of silk) is interwoven with the discovery of germ theory.
- The great city of Benin in Nigeria once boasted walls that ran a staggering 15,000 km in the city and a further 16,000 km in surrounding areas. The city was laid out fractally; in a 2007 TED Talk, mathematician Ron Eglash expanded on the recurrence of fractals in African design, from textile patterns to fences. Benin was also the source of beautiful bronze sculptures, which are still considered some of the best examples of the lost-wax casting method ever made.
- The process of dyeing Malian bogolan, or mudcloth, can take up to a few months and involves a dye bath of leaves and branches and patterns painted with fermented mud. The color comes from a reaction of iron oxide in the mud and the tannic acid in the dye bath. Elsewhere in Mali, mud serves as plaster on the unique architecture in Djenné.
- The Kuba cloths of the Congo are woven from the fibers of the raffia palm and embellished with appliqué or cut-pile embroidery. I’m always amazed by the sheer number of fiber-based materials in our world.
- The 8,000 year old Dufuna canoe is the oldest known boat in Africa. 3,400 years later, the Khufu ship was sealed into its owner’s tomb. And 1,400 years after that, the Carthage-built Marsala Ship sank off the coast of Sicily.
- A 500 year old Incan rope bridge is renewed annually using techniques passed down generation to generation through oral tradition. This short video shows how it’s done. For a deeper look at the bridge and the community that keeps it alive, check out this hour-long documentary.
- In the essay on stiffness that was the inspiration for this issue, I wrote about the baidarka, or Aleutian kayak, as an excellent example of flexible design. While looking for more about baidarkas, I found this wonderful website about the technology of the Yup’ik people of Alaska. It’s a little difficult to navigate (look for the next button on the bottom of pages), but some personal favorites include a sealskin float, snow goggles, and an intricate grass tea kettle.
- In a reservoir in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal (modern day Guatemala), archaeologists found zeolite and quartz, minerals used in modern filtration systems. The material is thought to come from a natural aquifer 30 km northeast of the city, where someone must have noticed the reason for the locally famous “clean and sweet” water. Observation is always a good first step in engineering.
- Near the Nasca lines in Peru, there are a series of spiraling holes called puquios. These puquios funneled wind underground into a sophisticated series of canals, where it would help push water through the system.
- Construction sites are usually auditory agony. Not so in Thailand, where pile driving can be musical, as seen in this video as well as this one.
- The living tree bridges of northeast India take decades to build/grow. Constructed primarily of Ficus elastica (rubber fig trees), they are built by erecting bamboo scaffolding between a pair of young saplings. As the trees age they sprout aerial roots, which are then meticulously draped over the scaffolding and woven together into intricate structures. Living tree bridges can last centuries, and support not only human foot traffic but entire ecosystems – plants, animals, and insects enmeshed together in symbiosis.
- These 3000 year old pants found in western China show a deep understanding of the material used. The wool pants seamlessly transition between four different zones, which feature four different weaving methods to emphasize either flexibility or strength. An early predecessor to Nike’s Flyknit.
- One of the iron chain suspension bridges built by Thangtong Gyalpo in Bhutan in the 1400s. According to one biographer (see page 117 of this pdf), reports about Gyalpo’s bridges led directly to the development of suspension bridges in Europe in the 1800s.
- Ancient Chinese toys had some advanced aerodynamics. There was the bamboo-copter, a simple propellor on a stick that was the first helicopter-esque device the world had seen. And from The Ten Thousand Infallible Arts of the Prince of Huai-Nan from 2nd century BC (as quoted in Science and Civilisation in China), instructions on how to create a hot air balloon from an egg:
Take an egg and remove the contents from the shell, then ignite a little mugwort tinder (inside the hole) so as to cause a strong air-current. The egg will of itself rise in the air and fly away.
…though this entertaining video shows that it might be more difficult than it sounds.
- Built in Micronesia between 900 and 1200 C.E., Nan Madol is a fascinating city constructed almost entirely of stacked basalt columns. Its name translates to “in the space between things,” a reference to its Venice-like network of waterways. Locally, “waterways are described as connectors of people and places rather than barriers.”
- In a wonderful example of letting Mother Nature do the work for you, the Yolŋu people of north Australia make yidaki (didjeridu) from the trunks of Eucalyptus trees that have been hollowed out by termites.
- One of the neatest ideas in mechanical engineering is beautifully summarized by Robert Hooke: “As hangs the flexible line, so but inverted will stand the rigid arch.” Check out this pdf for a technical explanation, or see how Antonio Gaudi used the concept to design La Sagrada Familia.
- The incredibly imaginative drawings of flying machines by Charles Dellschau.
- I’m a big fan of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and slowly have started making my way through its brilliant inspiration – The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Aesthetics and adventure are off the charts.
p.s. - I’ve been working on inventing a new piece of ice hockey equipment, which I’m trying to get to the NHL. Follow along!
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.