I was a child when Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published. It was a brilliant piece of wish-fulfilment fantasy and story-telling, and was devoid of the customary moralising and sententiousness that infects much of children’s literature. It was simply mischievous, and spoke to what a child would want to hear, not what a parent might wish a child to enjoy. It was written by a writer who hadn’t forgotten how a child sees the world.
But even then it wasn’t the chocolate aspect that attracted me to the story. It was the factory aspect. I am more nerd that chocoholic. I love machines.
One of the great joys of being a business systems consultant (see LLP Group) is finding yourself in all sorts of places, looking at devices that aren’t part of your everyday life. I’ve seen machines that fold letters and pop them into envelopes. I’ve seen drums like cement mixers in which pills are coated with colourful sugary syrup to make them more palatable. I’ve seen high-speed water-jet looms that weave cloth at near supersnic speeds, and machines that make, freeze and package ice lollies.
But, as every child knows, the most fun is to be had in a chocolate factory. I’ve seen the way wafers are baked, smeared with sweet hazelnut paste, sandwiched together, sliced and then coated with molten chocolate in a chocolate drizzling machine. I’ve seen the bars slipped into packaging and then boxed. What could be more exciting than that? Certainly not the eating part.
Machinery is fascinating. Sometimes the manipulations of materials mimic the way we do things ourselves. There are parts that resemble hands, arms, and fingers, but they move more quickly and more accurately than we do and never tire. But usually they do just one thing. They make chocolates or they pop letters in envelopes, but if they do one, they don’t do the other.
It seems odd to me now that at university my friends and I were so disparaging of engineering students. They were generally considered the dullest. They played rugby and drank more beer than most of us. But when I see the machines that engineers must imagine and build, I regret my prejudice. Some of them might surely have become today’s Brunel, or Telford.
Engineering is sometimes art. Look at this exercise in Lego. It’s beautiful and pointless.
What is art if not the celebration of human imagination, dexterity, precision, calculation and determination, and of the fact that we are driven by more than necessity. It’s all the more pure when there is no point to it at all.