© 2014 Earl L. Haehl: Permission is given to use this article in whole or in part as long as credit is given. Book rights are reserved.
Using tools is not a “retreat to a semi-frontier past.” The past is important because it shows what could have happened and why our retreat from the way forward will eventually create a present worse than the past. By not using the tools of the past, how can we build the tools of the future. This is not the first time I have discussed this, but it is the beginning of a concerted effort to talk about something in non-ideological terms and build an argument for the future.
My friends and I had been discussing rocketry and space flight and drawing rockets for about three years before 04OCT1957. On that date, the Sovs launched Sputnik. Sphincters tightened in governmental and educational circles. In our juvenile world we were already discussing propellants and experimenting. At Christmas of 1956 I took out a rocket powered by the compression and release of water which was guaranteed to go 300 feet in the air. Without accurate means of measurement we figured they were right because it went a long way.
We continued to do experiments—it was the “nerd” culture. I often have remarked that we have a government agency devoted to our culture—the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Anyway, hobby stores still sell rocket kits and engines and you can still get CO2 canisters which were sold at the time by an outfit called Johnson Smith Co to power rockets, model boats and model cars.
The way rocket fuel, liquid, solid or compressed gas, propels the rocket is the same way steam or petrol gas moves a piston or gun powder propels a Minié ball. The same principle drives air brakes and nail guns with compressed air. Anyone working with basic tools understands this. We all worked with tools—we all had blown up a balloon and let it go. Many of us had detonated cherry bombs in rural mail boxes to observe the speed with which they opened—the fact that this was considered destruction of federal property made it even more daring. And we were all ready to get out to the desert on any given weekend with our small rockets.
In the meantime we had school and homework to attend to, German and Latin to learn, algebra, geometry, trig, calculus. This was in addition to the applied chemistry experiments that some unknown students attempted involving a combination of chemicals dropped into the trash cans in the lunch courts causing immediate and violent oxidation much to the consternation of the lunch court monitors.
This enthusiasm for space and science went beyond the nerd community. Television brought on a lot of new heroes—Robert Goddard, Werner von Braun, and Ludwig von Drake. There was competition for the advanced science and math courses. Even those outside the advanced courses preferred electronics, auto tech and metalworking to woodworking and graphic arts. For those who made it into the advanced track, competition turned to comraderie and we often passed off slide rules to those headed for tests in chemistry, physics and military science. We would meet for study and discussion in the Public Library after school.
The human population, according to Johnny Keufel, was divided into tool users and lotus eaters. I met few of the latter, one had a view that the world was divided into the workers and the elites and he resented shop because it might damage his manicure. I got plenty of grease, oil and printers’ ink under my nails in those days even though I considered myself elite. He took military science to avoid gym and then was upset that he was expected to take orders from his “inferiors” and to clean his issued weapon. He finally transferred to a private school that would value his status.
The other one I was aware of was an exchange student from Argentina who told his girlfriend she needed to shave her arms—he did not like gym class or the suggestion that he demean himself to take shop. Again the idea that getting dirty was for peasants.
I will say that the aversion to tools was not real common, even in the upscale neighborhood, probably because of the times. Parents were of the World War II generation. Men who served in the war became acquainted with what was necessary for the effort and a lot were on the farm before that. Many mothers had worked in the defense plants. There was in my case also a strong influence from the New England puritan culture and the necessity of the Depression era.
Another thing about the generation previous to mine. They grew up making, repairing and salvaging. It was not uncommon for a group of young men to rescue a vehicle from the landfill and do a rebuild, which is why they would cannibalize shot up jeeps along European roads to keep others running, while the Germans let theirs sit and oxidize. These were stories heard when we gathered in multi-generational settings such as family dinners or neighborhood picnics.
When a bicycle became necessary, the best way to get it was to buy a used bike for five to ten bucks and repair it—new bikes with all the bells and whistles went for $50 and up. $50 was a week’s pay for a lot of parents and odd jobs were hard to find in the urban setting—I had made about seventy five cents a day topping sugar beets (a tool using task) in the midwest, but other than throwing papers there were few tasks for a 13 or 14 year old in urban California. I did cut my dad’s lawn, sometimes for a quarter, but the only offer I got from a neighbor involved a payment that could get me severely beaten if I were caught. Nobody was buying squirrel pelts so trapping was out.
The United States is in financial trouble and politicians feel we should accept that we are a service economy and that we need to “work smarter” because industry is dirty and by extension tools are dirty. There is a proposal for a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. For a business to be able to pay $10.10 an hour, an employee has to provide greater value than $10.10 an hour. This is a gimmick to create the illusion of doing something to create prosperity.
Minimum wage is supposed to be for the unskilled at entry level. If a company has a pool of $100,000 a year for wages, can it absorb a 37 percent wage increase with the same number of employees in the absence of a greater than 37 percent increase in revenues. And if the minimum is increased by 37 percent, then skilled rates go up by a similar percentage—this is built into labor contracts. Also, the folks getting $10 an hour currently would expect, in the name of equity, to be compensated at $13.70 an hour. Then prices rise and income may or may not increase because the unemployed struggle with purchasing at current prices which means less purchasing and less hiring.
The beginning workers see a dead end because they are not skilled enough to adapt quickly to automation, in addition to the fact that 27 percent will no longer be employed. There is likely to be a greater percentage of the non-skilled out of work because the skilled employees are necessary to handle the automation.
In other words, the State cannot mandate individual prosperity. Nor can policy makers understand that labor and skilled labor are separate entities. Only by rebuilding a society that makes things can a highly populated nation like the United States prosper—we are too large to do subsistence agriculture, plantation crops require a different social structure and the rest of the world has its own service sector.
Whatever one says about the causality of slavery and the plantation crop system relating to the War or 1861-65, it most assuredly contributed greatly to the defeat of the Confederacy. Aside from fervor of Northern troops imagining themselves on a “holy crusade,” the institution of slavery made the southern states a mercantile colony dependent on plantation agriculture and not able to develop an industrial culture despite resources. The textile mills were in New England. Further the plantation system produced exports, not food. The North, with its agriculture geared to the food chain and its heavy industrial capacity as well as greater population, rolled over the South—it could have done so more quickly had the military officer corps (a product of Jefferson Davis’s reorganization and Robert E. Lee’s superintendency of the Academy) not split into the two sides.
The Yankee culture was built around tinkering. In the War for Independence, there had been small time German gunsmiths and surreptitious shops throughout the northern colonies. The prohibition on manufactures rankled New England more than the southern colonies which were geared to the production of cotton, tobacco and sugar for export. Farming on the rocky ground in New England was small scale, but in the northwest and the plains grain and fruit were important.
On every farm was a shop. And “tinkering” was a Puritan value. 30 to 40 percent of immigration to Michigan during the period 1830-1850 was from New England. NOTE: Our denigration of Puritan culture ignores the rise of Puritanism with the Enlightenment rather than the Reformation. And Puritanism arose among the new middle class that later formed the Industrial Revolution.
The problem we now face is that industry has left the building forced out by the idea that it is irrelevant to a modern, safe and environmental society. We could not, even if the capital was as available as the raw materials, immediately reconstitute an industrial economy given the regulatory structure and the convenience culture of the society.
This brings us back to Johnny’s reference in passing to the chasm between “tool users” and “lotus eaters.” He and I both came out of a youth culture where at least one weekend a month was devoted to tuning someone’s carburetor. For my younger readers a carburetor was a device which regulated the flow of petrol and oxygen into the cylinders where it was fired by spark in order to drive a piston. Piston driving was (is) essential to the function of an internal combustion engine. If I still had my 1984 Suburban I could, theoretically, continue to rebuild the engine and transmission and carburetor.
This would be contrary to the need for jobs because union dogma contends that only UAW workers should build cars. And repairs should only be done by factory authorized mechanics. A few independent mechanics still exist. Maintenance functions—such as oil and filter changes—are largely performed by minimum wage employees at WalMart. (Keufel’s definition of minimum wage work was anything less than twice minimum wage.) As a result of the infirmities of age, I have resorted to taking my truck to an independent shop but I remember getting an 84 Ford Escort in the early nineties and immediately changing out the plugs and tuning the carburetor.
The whole culture has changed. By the time my brothers were in high school most of the car culture was gone. By the time my children were in high school it was a nostalgia series on television. Some changes are good—I like my electronic fuel injection better than my weekends being shot tuning somebody’s carb wearing an oil soaked t-shirt and smelling like grease. I like being able to afford the electric motors from Shanghai which make my work easier. I like the duty free Noconas from Mexico.
On the other hand I dislike the throw away attitude of our society—I dislike the fact that the DSLR camera I bought in 2008 was introduced six months earlier and made obsolete a month or so later. I still use it and will until it fails because I cannot really afford to replace it for convenience and cannot, as a practical matter repair it—I use film cameras going back to 1959 that are still functional and can be repaired and yet they are considered as wasteful and harmful to the environment.
So I remember the shade tree mechanic culture of the fifties and sixties. A lot of people do—mostly they are retired. There was also a custom car culture at the same time that pushed Detroit’s designers beyond their comfort zone. It was an age when people were comfortable with tools and with building. It was a time when a full year of shop was available to any high school student in my district—I took electronics and we wound coils and joined wires and tubes to build a super heterodyne radio. Some in the class ran the school’s 20-year-old AV equipment that baffled the faculty and often required adjustment or repair on the spot. (When I was teaching on my own, this ability meant I could leave a projectionist in class.) And we used tools, read schematics and tested equipment. Other options included woodworking, metalworking, graphic arts and automotive.
Flash forward to the mid eighties. My son took a course in “world of construction” where the project was a model of a “dream house” made from styrofoam board. My daughter’s review of the course was that it bordered on insipid—she took two years of mechanical drawing. At that time metalworking, automotive technology and other trades classes were available to those not in the college prep program. So the “dummies” learned measurement and tolerances in a real world environment while the college bound did not.
I did not observe the after school study groups while my children were in high school. They were often preempted by fantasy and role playing games. The closest thing to a rocket they had was a golf ball cannon that one of the gang built in metal shop—they stored it in my garage because I was the parent who tolerated it.
Flash forward to 1999. In addition to telling customers we did not have generators and selling splitting axes and kerosene, I recall talking to architecture and engineering students complaining about having to get tools to make models to match drawings—they even offered me money to build the models for them. They talked about computer simulation that creates the model and the necessary calculations—no math, the computer has it programmed. I also arrived at the conclusion that anyone studying architecture needs work experience in the building or mechanical trades.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution began in small shops by men who were thinking of ways to improve their production and make money doing so. They did not write grant proposals. They were craftsmen and engineers, not policy experts or elected officials and they were not afraid of making money. They worked with tools and built things—they were not “project managers” or “brainstormers.”
So the answer begins in every home workshop. There is nothing in our culture that requires people to have only one skill. For most of our history have been fixing, building and inventing in addition to “regular” work. The joke about technology from people’s garages is not something from the computer age—it is a logical carryover of the way innovation has occurred in history. Thomas Edison did not begin in some company’s R&D section. Graham Bell worked in his house, not an unattached shop. Henry Ford did not have a TARP grant.
In Germany, licensing mandates require that roofing be done by those licensed to roof: the same with painting, glazing, replacing circuit breakers, etc ad infinitum. This concept comes from “scientific management” writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the sociological/political writings of Max Weber. Taylor believed in the factory as an organism where the individual would perform a specific task only and the result would be the product of the factory as a whole under the direction of a manager. This led to the assembly line which made the machines of World War II. To an extent, however, modifications were made in the field by soldiers with mechanical backgrounds. The top down environment led to stagnation of American industry and the ultimate collapse of GM.
As I homeowner, I replaced an entire box of breakers. As a photographer, I designed the plumbing and lighting for nine photographic laboratories, occasionally doing a significant portion of the execution. As a photographer, I built lighting controls some of my own design. Okay, I could have passed the electricians license at some point in my life, but my formal education is in liberal arts and prison administration paid the bills. I also would have had to pay a fee to take the test. I have done roofing, I have done glazing, built shelves and even a drawing table. Until I hit fifty I did ninety percent of my auto maintenance. And I am still a damn good bench electrician—slower but still good.
I believe the more home workshops the better. And I believe everyone should learn to use tools and make things. My friend Johnny built a workshop into a walk-in closet in his apartment—he did not let me take pictures because he was going to do the article himself. He had a drill press, bench grinder and industrial grade vise and he used a propane soldering tool—I would have used a electric soldering gun in that space. But the thing is that he did it and built things.
Expense was a real barrier to building a shop in earlier times. But there is competition. Read the real men’s magazines—Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, numerous hobby magazines, car magazines—and even gardening and home magazines. There are ads for cut rate tools and tool companies. Back in the seventies and eighties, I used to haunt the “truckload tool sales” at hardware, discount and grocery stores. Harbor Freight, Cummins and Grizzly have stores in many major cities as well as catalog sales. There are tool shows in various venues and at one, I calculated that a decent machine shop could be outfitted for less than a thou. The trick is having a thou to spend and sneaking the tools past your spouse. In another article I will cover a systematic way of putting it together.
Back in 1970, my wife and I came back from our studio apartment in Washington with an ammo box half-full of tools. By borrowing from friends and relatives we were able to build furniture we needed. In 72 we started doing house repairs and grinding—adding a 3/8 inch drill and grinding wheel which took up a second ammo box. And sometime in 74, I snagged a real tool box out of a dumpster—the lock was screwed up, but that’s what a hasp and padlock are for. And after moving into our house in 76, the projects and tools seemed to multiply. [To be fair, in Washington our three books multiplied to where they filled a three shelf bookcase and took up the shelf in the closet.]
The moral here is that either tools or more expensive help are necessary for maintenance of home and vehicles. And knowing how to use tools is going to be necessary as the craftsmen retire and die off. Further, we need to be able to build generation equipment as the power lines become more flaky. Electric current that travels through the grid becomes less efficient the farther it travels. Also there are places in the west where miles of transmission line gets stolen for underground cash. Sun spots also impact the long lines.
Home power, whether solar or wind, is insurance. Problem is that a commercial install may cost as much as a house did thirty years ago. It helps to build with friends—especially if they have tools.
The point is to start somewhere and build something. And then build something else. It will either turn you off completely or you will become addicted. And when you need the skills you will have them.
I have written much in the past about politics and I illustrated the policy approach. Building something is much more positive. Feeling the power of the angle grinder in my hands as the voltage shot through it gave me a more positive feeling than arguing with a populist trying to get my vote with buzz words. And in a skilled society, minimum wage becomes irrelevant.
I am seventy years old. I do not know how much longer I can use the skills I have developed over my lifetime or whether I will be able to use the MIG welder when I can afford it. But I am pursuing the dream because the way of the future is in skilled work.