The Pleasure of Machines

by John MacBeath Watkins

My bookstore has recently been flooded with World War II books from a gentleman who is moving back to Italy. Consequently, I've been tempted back into reading about the war.

I've never had that much interest in the battles. What fascinates me is the technology. Of course, I'm also fascinated by the technology of cameras, sailboats, cars, etc. There's just something about an innovative machine that I love. Of course, I've never owned a gun or an aircraft, because they don't do anything I actually need to do or like to do, unlike cameras and sailboats. Well, okay, I might like flying if it weren't so bloody expensive (besides, the physics are sooo much more in your favor if you screw up sailing.)

A machine that is designed to do a task and does it well brings me pleasure the way a logical argument does, and there is a beauty in efficiency. There is also the pleasant surprise of an unorthodox approach, even if it doesn't work. I love those periods of transition, when engineers don't know quite what they are doing and have to try new things, make mistakes and try again.

What fascinates people about the history of warfare? The expression of naked power weapons have, the drama of the battle, the human tragedy that always accompanies war, certainly. But also the purity of purpose wars give people and the innovation they spur.

Racing also has this purity of purpose, which is why I like the racing aircraft of the 1930s, and racing sailboats of any era. A machine that is clearly purposeful has a beauty mere decoration could never achieve, sometimes the severe beauty of pure logic, sometimes the more organic beauty of a shape that moves smoothly through air or water. But there are other emotions tied up in any object, related to its purpose.

The shark-like form of the ME 262 allowed it to reach higher mach numbers before experiencing compressibility problems than any other aircraft of the time, but its engineering purity and beauty can never be completely divorced from its purpose, which was to kill people in defense of an odious regime. I recently ran across a picture of a Japanese Zero fighter with American markings. It had been captured and used to test against American fighters so that American pilots could work out better tactics. It seems to me that I had a different emotional reaction to a Zero painted the same way as an American Navy fighter, dark blue with white stars. Take away the menace of an aircraft with enemy markings, and it was easier to appreciate the beauty of its lines.

Stripped of the semiotics of the warlike Japanese state of the 1930s and '40s, it had the sleek efficiency and friendly feel of the Japanese cars I've owned. Not that having the WW II Japanese markings made me consciously think of the Bataan Death March or the rape of Nanking, but symbols tend to be entangled with emotions on an unconscious level.