James May

James May

James on: beauty in engineering

If  for some reason you were called upon to make the cylinder for a small steam engine, you would have to do it very accurately. The piston would have to fit inside it very snugly, so that it was pretty much airtight, and the bore would have to be parallel and smooth. Otherwise the steam engine wouldn’t work, and it would fail in its principal role of being a steam engine.

This is a largely numerical matter. If the bore of the cylinder is nominally 18mm, then you could get it to within a few hundredths of that, and then make the piston a few hundredths smaller, so they slide together beautifully. This is easy to do with simple machine tools, and has been for generations. With modern methods, you could do it to within microns.

With that done, you could turn your attention to the outside of the cylinder, where you could afford to indulge yourself a bit. Dimensional rectitude is not so important here, so you could add an unnecessary nicety or two: an interesting finish, perhaps, or you could paint it a nice colour. You could even engrave it with a scene from Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. It’d still work.

Shotguns are an even better example. Once the business of the bore, the breech, the pins and the locks are sorted out, the gunsmith can go mad with elaborate tooling and mythical allegories.

I mention this because I tried the steam engine thing recently, and, after a couple of attempts, I had the piston and cylinder working nicely. Then I added a slight dome to the closed end of the cylinder, and cut a couple of faint grooves at the same end because I thought they looked nice. But even if I’d left the whole thing plain and functional, I would have been making an aesthetic statement.

So mechanical engineering is always ultimately clothed in some sort of artistry. How could it not be? It comes to us as things we appreciate through our senses.

Car styling is the obvious example of this. Cars are quite complex bits of manufacturing and so are full of arithmetic fidelity and unnatural forms – dead straight lines, absolute squareness, flatness, perfect circularity. They are engineered artefacts and rely on things like tolerances to function and to be affordable through mass production. But they manifest themselves at the kerbside as flourishes. There’s art of a sort in there, even in the Porsche Panamera, otherwise all cars really would look the same.

But it’s not just the way they look, is it? We understand cars through all our sensory receptors; through our ears, our fingertips, our noses (the screenwash of a BMW springs to mind), our buttocks and that fizzy bit that Clarkson has incorrectly but inevitably identified as something to do with my penis.

All the vital attributes that a car has stem from engineering. The buzz of an engine at a certain speed and under a certain load, the weight of a control, the texture of a gearknob, and so on. They are rooted in artifice and known things. Yet, ultimately, they cannot actually be quantified, because maths is inadequate as a language for explaining the human condition. 

If it was that good, we could have any number of Beethoven piano sonatas, but history has so far only given us 32, all by Beethoven. 

Liking and appreciating cars – or any other mechanical object, for that matter – requires artistic sensitivity to some degree. Hammond’s are not very sophisticated, because he likes pickups. But even he likes some pickups more than others.

At this point, someone will say that cars are great when they have soul, but I think this is a cop-out. Machines do not have a soul, and claiming that they do is really a get-out clause to evade thinking properly about it. Rather, machines reveal the soul of humanity, which is much more interesting.

And art is perhaps humanity’s loftiest endeavour, but mankind would not have advanced without engineering. Too many people in the world want to set them apart, and imagine that they are somehow in conflict. In fact, they are completely inseparable. A screw thread has more of engineering than of art in it, and a Matisse has more of art than engineering. Yet they are joined by an infinitely stretchy piece of elastic that can never be broken.

So some contrivance in which engineering and art are perfectly complementary to one another is one of the finest things we have. And that’s why the Ferrari 458 is the best car in the world.


James May, Column

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