Websites to Spent Countless Hours On: Five Hundred And Seven Mechanical Movements

3. May 2020

Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements is a book by Henry T. Brown, first published in 1868. Its full title is “Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements embracing all those which are most important in Dynamics, Hydraulics, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Steam Engines, Mill and other Gearing, Presses, Horology, and Miscellaneous Machinery; including many movements never before published, and several which have only recently come into use.” And you say I write long sentences! Matt Keveney took the 21st edition of the book, published in 1908, and digitalized it and put it on a website. He then proceeded to animate many of the movements, adding greatly to their intelligibility.

About a year ago my girlfriend took me to an event she had read about in her university’s Facebook group: an antiquarian bookshop was being dissolved and was giving away all the books they had in store. So the next weekend we arrived at a block of flats, rather than a bookshop like we had expected. Only a small sign pointed us towards the cellar, where the antiquarian had rented a couple of rooms. The owner was an elderly man and it seemed very clear that he was more of a collector who enjoyed gathering books, rather than a salesman. But he was getting too old and the money he made by selling books every now and then didn’t cover the costs of renting the space anymore, so he had to shut it down. And it seemed like he didn’t mind giving the books away for free — he was happy for every book that ended up in the hands of someone who might get some joy from it. The antiquarian was specialized in art books and musical scores and we spent an hour or so roaming through the dark rooms with low ceilings, where every wall (and much of the space in-between) was covered with shelves. The collection was truly impressive: I was left in awe by the mountains of leather-bound books set in lead type (mostly in Blackletter) and musical scores from the 1800s, though most of them were so old as to be barely readable.

My girlfriend took home a pile of large format art catalogues, while I only picked two books. One was a small encyclopedia of jazz, the other one was a huge book, bound in linen. Its title is “Uhren und Messinstrumente des 15. bis 19. Jahrhunderts” The books original French title is “Mesures du temps et de l’espace”., written by Samuel Guye and Michel Henrik, published in 1970 — the title roughly translates to “Clocks and Measurement Instruments of the 15th to 19th Century”. It still hits me with the smell of old paper every time I open it up. Though most of the book is focused on the artistic side and the intricate ornamentation of the clocks, as well as their socio-historic context, my favorite parts are the ones that focus on mechanical inventions and break-throughs. I love looking at the schematic drawings of watches and trying to “read them”, figuring out how the different parts interact, how the movement is put forth from one part to the next.

I have a soft spot for this kind of engineering. As someone who creates digital products I have a firm understanding of how computers work and all the layers of abstraction and the complexities involved in that. But I find it fascinating to imagine the way backwards, from digital computers to analog electronic computers to mechanical computers. Consider the ancient greek Antikythera mechanism, estimated to have been built around 100 BC, that was used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses, via a set of gears put into motion by turning a hand crank. Or the amazingly complex tide-predicting machines of the 19th century. There were people observing natural phenomena, creating mathematical models, then using the properties of mechanical machines to “implement” the models and suddenly be able to speed up time and predict the future, how can one not love that?

There is a certain immediacy in mechanical movements that leaves me in awe. I always imagine them as little riddles: You have this motion, you want that motion — how can you hook something up that makes it work? And while it is a rather concrete domain, there still seems to be such a great level of abstraction involved: Each movement is a closed “circuit”, for lack of a better word, that does its job or transformation without side-effects. And when you hook up many of them together incredible machines can be formed. That’s not too different form the way complex programs are created by chaining pure functions!

I guess that’s why I love Henry T. Brown’s book: It’s a collection of little recipes, each independent of the others. It’s an encyclopedia of mechanical movements — “Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements” is the kind of book you would want to take with you in case of an apocalypse.

My favorite movements

These are some of the movements that I found the most fascinating. The collection however lives from its comprehensiveness, so I strongly suggest to browse through a few more!

The website

Five Hundred And Seven Mechanical Movements: an online edition of the classic technical reference Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. By the way, Matt Keveney has a second website, called Animated Engines, which is less extensive but might be even more interesting!

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