Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tony and the NAMES Show

At Tony W's invitation, I drove to Detroit to take part in his book-selling operation at the Model Engineering Expo where I could see what the technological literates of the Michigan area were up to. It was a fascinating experience because the Producing elites are the most interesting grouping in my Elegant Technology class system.

And here they were gathered--proving that the Instinct of Workmanship is so powerful that some folks will engage in ridiculously complex hobbies just to soak up their internal obsessions for excellence. And because the show was held in Michigan where the economy is still based on world-class metal-working skills, it was also an opportunity to see how Producers are doing these days.

Detroit was never a beautiful city because that requires a level of civic organization it never had. After all, its movers and shakers were building things like River Rouge--not green spaces and public architecture. There are of course some seriously interesting individual buildings (Fair Lane below) because Detroit was for many years a very rich city. But even decorated with the flowers of spring 2010, Detroit just looked ratty.

For a few hours on Monday, Tony and I drove around looking for the signs of de-industrialization and the biggest sign was the lack of people. The freeways were empty, the malls are vacant, the machine shops of Seven Mile Road stand empty or have become that most noticeable symbol of economic decline--the junk store calling itself an Antique Shoppe. There are neighborhoods where whole blocks have lost their housing stock except for maybe a burned-out building or two.  (The pictures below are of the old Packard works--someone has left these buildings to rot for over 50 YEARS.)

The show attendees were mostly old white guys--many with extensive histories at the big car companies. They could recall in great detail the glory days of Midwestern Industrialization because they had participated in it. One 75 year-old who called himself "Frenchy" had been part of the Ford research team. When he learned that I was from Minnesota, he told me that he had spent seven winters in Bemidji doing cold weather testing. This town is near the headwaters of the Mississippi and it gets COLD up there. Frenchy had earned his pay.

When I was growing up, being able to start a car on a cold day was considered a valuable skill. And for good reason--it was hard to do. Now you hardly ever think about it any more--cars just start. So I thanked him for his good work and he confirmed the adage that industrial excellence is usually a process of getting a lot of things right. Cars are easier to start because of better spark plugs, electronic ignition systems, high-performance low viscosity lubricants, little things like accessory belts that stay flexible in the cold, and the biggie--electronic fuel injection. And while I enjoyed the status of neighborhood car-starting expert, my life is a lot better knowing my neighbors can start their own cars. Since Frenchy had actually improved my life, I encouraged him to tell me how it was done.

Like a lot of 75-year-old guys with too many interesting stories and not enough people to tell them to, Frenchy didn't need a lot of encouragement. And because I was barely of any use to the actual operation of Tony's book stand, I decided to listen to over an hour of stories. He told about some of the great characters at Ford like "Bunkie" Knudsen. He's one of my favorites because he once asked, "How hard can it be to sell a device that takes people where they want to go sitting down?" Apparently, Knudsen who was as a son of a former GM President, Detroit royalty, made it a habit of starting his day at the Research Center where he loved to drive the prototypes. A good prince, he made it a point to know everyone's name.

Frenchy's theme--one that would be repeated over the weekend--was the pain over the loss of potential. These guys knew how it was done--and make no mistake, the affordable mass-produced automobile is still the most difficult thing humans make. At least four guys told me that 85% of the independent machine shops in the Detroit area had closed due the current Great Recession. You could have started a pretty nice country with the skills walking around at the show--these are guys who have old Bridgeport mills in their garages and know how to use them. This is a crowd that knows what has been lost.

On the other hand, the descriptions for why that great industrial potential had been trashed were all over the map. There was the fellow who claimed the problems had been caused by the "pirates in pinstripes" while another called Obama "Jimmy Carter on steroids." One guy faulted USA trade policy while another claimed the loss of industrial might was a function of not taking the rest of the world seriously as competition. And while all were at least partly correct, the general feeling I took away is that in the USA, the Producing Class--no matter how gifted--is still politically pretty primitive.

The most encouraging sign on a weekend that could easily have been mistaken for a Producer Class wake was the sales of books on Stirling Cycle engines. In theory, Stirling Cycle engines could run on the low-grade heat energy produced in various ways by solar collection. In practice, I have never seen a Stirling Cycle engine actually work. Perhaps these walking examples of the Instinct of Workmanship can turn some theory into practice.

On the way home, we stopped in Chicago to meet with Tony's brother.  Unlike Detroit, Chicago never looks ratty--in fact, it is one of those cities that can take your breath away.  Even so, the Great Recession is taking its toll there too.  Brother told about how many recently arrived Poles are turning around and going home.  Same for Mexicans he knew.  Turns out the damage of this current economic catastrophe is mostly a matter of what is going missing.  And of course, the greatest damage comes from the problems we are no longer even addressing.

1 comment: