Engineers used to be the ‘head in the clouds’ dreamers trying to build flying contraptions that Heath Robinson parodied and Rube Goldberg celebrated but, over the last century, we have become more accustomed to seeing them as Silicon Valley businessmen or frugal car mechanics. The age of “techno-aesthetics” is having a revival at last*.
This may be changing again as we are starting to see a new golden age of silly inventions – the creation of machines that are pointless or pointlessly inefficient and yet, wonderful to watch, work on or play with.
Yes silly inventions. The homemade kind of invention, generally one-offs – not the kind of mass produced novelty item that you find on Firebox or in MenKind that jokingly aim to make things more efficient e.g. pen lids with forks on them.
The internet has always been a huge fanatic of silly inventing with early memes including a “Chain Reaction” video and the Rube Goldberg contests site became incredibly popular through the magic of the internet. But then the early hype dampened down as a new breed of louder, more sociable users took over who were more interested in socialising and boy bands than science.
But silly inventing is returning. And this is great – not only does it start to move the stereotypes of engineers away from dull, repetitive technicians and back towards the fun and creative, if slightly wacky, inventor image, but also it makes technology more accessible as it encourages people to follow how the systems work or learn to build up from the most basic of components – all at a time when we are seeing a serious shortage of new engineers.
The rise of the Maker movement has provided everyone with better resources to make cooler machines more easily. Homemade inventions can be anything you want them to be, including very daft. From all the crazy limitless possibilities of better and more accessible CAD (GrabCAD’s bank of files, Google introducing Sketchup) to the increasing power of internet to put pressure on even the more elaborate inventors to share instructions (Instructables.com, eHow), everything has been getting better for ‘silly inventions’.
Steampunk’s recent slow rise/return into fashion (the Steampunk style has been going for a couple of decades but only recently has entered the mainstream) has resulted in a spread of interest from the more “trendy” type of people (who have money to potentially invest in making this stuff even better maybe?) and more effort in stylising the inventions, as with the work of artist Shannon O’Hare for example.
And, of course, Youtube has been a significant player, encouraging adverts, music videos and others with Rube Goldberg machines, to go viral as people replay and try and figure out how everything works and fits together.
So here are my current favourite ‘silly inventions’ of recent years: