Machines Aren’t Magic

This summer I’ve been plucked from the world of textbooks, elegant formulas and diagrams and dunked into the world of bolts, metal, grease, coal dust and zebra mussels. Machines that are represented in books as tidy little boxes and circles are actual big, heavy chunks of metal that spin amazingly fast, make a lot of noise, leak fluids and spew dust and steam. Like I mentioned before, I didn’t grow up around machines or engines. I haven’t taken them apart and put them back together. I learned how a pump works only a couple months ago. For me, these machines have been symbols in diagrams and numbers in calculations. They’ve been simple, efficient and mysterious.

It’s kind of pleasant living in a world where everything is clean and efficient. Where losses can be ignored and friction conveniently doesn’t exist. A world where dimensions are perfect and seals are absolute. It’s a charming world where the math works beautifully and the results are exactly as expected. The water is pumped at the calculated rate, the oil is cooled to the expected temperature, the fuel and air mixture is perfect and nothing whatsoever is wasted. It’s a world where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average (if you didn’t get my NPR reference there, congratulations, you are less of a nerd than me).

And it’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where condensers clog, bearings overheat, pumps cavitate, seals leak, powders clump and pipes corrode. We live in a world with enormous amounts of friction. We live in a world where things must often be heavy to be durable, even if we’d prefer they be light. We live in a world of trade-offs.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I got to explore the innards of all these machines. I guess, since I didn’t fully understand how they worked, I was expecting to see something somewhat magical. Instead what I saw were giant steel impellers, tubes, pipes and linkages. I saw enormous steel turning vanes to guide air around less-than efficient duct corners. I saw big steel dampers that spin open and closed like window shutters. Instead of seeing something mystical, what I saw were imperfect things that were very clearly created by humans.

What a relief! It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed when you think the things you’re going to spend your career building, diagnosing and maintaining are mystical, magical objects so complex you’d need to be Einstein to understand them. Imagine my delight when I finally saw the insides of these machines and realized they were just bigger, heavier versions of things I’ve been looking at my whole life. I understand how window shutters work. I’ve used a strainer. I’ve seen a thousand fans. I’ve even fixed some of these things when they aren’t working right. Haven’t we all? A calm started to come over me. I thought, “Huh…I might actually be able to figure this out. Maybe…someday…I’ll be a decent engineer.”

Little fan; big fan! Little strainer; big strainer! Little damper; big damper!

Little fan; big fan! Little strainer; big strainer! Little damper; big damper!

Of course everyone has been telling me this for years. Swooping in to rescue my continuously lagging self-confidence, people have assured me over and over again that it takes time and that I’m a curious, smart and motivated person and I’ll have no problem learning to be a great engineer. But, stubborn person that I am, I rarely believe something until I prove it to myself. So thank you, machines and mechanical systems, for turning out not to be magical, you really came through for me.

I can’t say enough good things about the value of this internship. I’m envious of all my classmates who’ve been able to do two or three internships while I’ve been busy working full time. Sure, the tuition discount and benefits have been wonderful and are the reason I’ve stuck it out working full time and going to school part time the past four years, but it’s come at the expense of having potentially valuable internship experiences. I’ve learned so much this summer and I’m really disappointed there are only three weeks left. School teaches you how to learn, but the real world is where you actually learn. I’m excited to get these last two semesters behind me and get out into my career – to finish learning how to learn and start really learning. Onward!

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