Why Inventions? by Ellis Weiner
What is it about mechanical devices, doohickeys, and gizmos that is so satisfying? Why is it so enthralling to watch elaborate Rube Goldberg-type contraptions chug and pivot and collapse through their paces? Why does this OK GO You Tube video from a couple years ago—-have 37,244,587 (i.e., a little more than the population of Algeria) views? And what’s everyone watching? A warehouse full of junk, being rolled and shot and thrown and shattered by not much more than the effects of simple machines, a little electricity, and a whole lot of gravity.
Probably our pleasure in this crude display of cause-and-effect originates in our ability to feel physical empathy.
Everyone is familiar with emotional empathy. We can look at someone reacting tearfully to bad news, and we can feel a vicarious/empathetic sadness. We feel bad for them. It’s the same with joy: we see hostages rescued from danger and reunited on the tarmac with their loved ones, and it is impossible not to well up with a feeling of vicarious relief.
Physical empathy is no less common. We can witness a particularly violent tackle in football and react, if not with a comparable physical pain, at least with some kind of wince or jolt. We watch pole vaulters or gymnasts execute their highly specific routines, or foot racers strain at the finish line, and experience some rarefied kind of response in sympathy with their effort. The entire art form of dance depends, in part, on our pre-conscious, somatic response to, and appreciation of, the dancers’ gestures and skill.
I’d even go so far as to say that the appeal of sculpture originates in our responding as one physical object—our bodies—to another. Our selves may be minds existing in the non-physical “space” of consciousness, but without our bodies we wouldn’t exist. We’re equipped with an entire repertoire of reflexes that snap into action without our having to (or being able to) think about them. Which is to say, our bodies have a mind of their own.
Maybe this is why we find mechanical inventions and contraptions so gratifying. The understandable, visible chain of cause and effect on display when, e.g., a foot pedal pumps air through a hose into a nozzle aimed at a book, thus turning a page without use of the hands, awakens a kind of fellow feeling in our bodies. The object does something; we, its fellow object, sense a kind of kinship with it.
The iPhone is cool, and everything, but a clever new form of corkscrew or umbrella exerts a charm that no electronic miracle can match. And, as anyone knows who has helped a young student create a project for a school unit on “simple machines,” merely hooking up pulleys and levers in such a way as to get object X from point A to B can be extremely satisfying.
Not only that. Practical objects do something that sculpture or ballet dancers don’t. They embody the process of solving problems. In that sense they manifest, not only our bodies as physical objects, but our minds at work. The devices in Rube Goldberg’s cartoons succeeded as elaborate jokes on physics itself (everything was the opposite of “elegant”) because they each ostensibly accomplished something practical. The point wasn’t to chain together an arbitrary array of boiling kettles and falling paperweights. It was—in the end—to pull your own tooth or find your keys.
When I decided to make the Templeton Twins’ father an inventor, it just seemed like a fun idea. But, now that I think of it, maybe this was why.
ELLIS WEINER has written funny articles for magazines, funny television scripts, and co-written a lot of funny books with Barbara Davilman (e.g., Yiddish with Dick and Jane). He has even written several funny books all by himself (e.g., The Joy of Worry), but The Templeton Twins Have an Idea is his first book for kids. It is also very funny. He lives in California. Follow him on Twitter: @EllisWeiner
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