Exquisitely dependent

Simple but strong, the cables keep the cars running.  San Francisco, July 2003

Simple but strong, the cables keep the cars running. San Francisco, July 2003

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” Carl Sagan

I plead guilty to that!  Or maybe not.

On my list of things I find fascinating, my impulse would be to place “science and technology” near the bottom.  Actually, though, I’ve always enjoyed learning about it.  In my immediate family, my experience with computer technology is far ahead that of my husband or sons; sort of a stereotype-buster.  And I’ve always been interested in learning how things work.  As a kid, I would take apart broken watches and toys to figure out why they stopped running.  So I guess being analytical is not too far removed from enjoying science or technology.

I don’t know anyone who ever went to San Francisco without at least seeing (if not riding) the justly famous cable cars, which are one of only two moving landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.  Relatively few take advantage of the free admission to the Cable Car museum, where I snapped the photo above.

One day when I was riding the Powell-Hyde line I heard a tourist ask the gripman, “What makes the cable cars run?” He smiled and answered “Cables!” It sounds too simple, but the actual machinery that is visible at the museum validates that answer.  The muscles of the gripmen and the incredible strength of the cables — one for each line — pull thousands of people each day (over seven million each year) up and down the steep hills of San Francisco.

One of the first science lessons I remember is “What is a machine?”  The cable cars are a great example of a relatively simple machine that provides an easily understood introduction to technology for the science-impaired such as I.  What are some of the simple or complex machines on which you depend every day?  When I ask myself that question, I come up with a whole new list of things for which I’m grateful.  I hope you will do the same.


  1. I’ll bet I can say something Carl Sagan couldn’t say with his “billions and billions” description of the cosmos. It is not everyday, but with great regularity, that I depend upon the axe. Your elementary school teacher taught you that the axe is an application of the simple wedge, which in turn is a double incline plane. Most think of axes as useful only during cold weather months, providing fuel for a warming fire. But one of my favorite axes is one that carries, completely contained, in a day pack on my back. Many mountain trails involve a narrow defile, and a fallen tree can present quite an obstacle. When properly sharpened, even my backpack axe can cut an eight-inch-diameter tree in two with less than a dozen strokes.

    • Eric, this is a perfect description of the kind of simple technology I’m referring to. In fact, I bet a good axe has “billions and billions :-)” of uses, especially in the woods. I have actually used an axe even in gardening, when I’m clearing a bed and come across a particularly thick shrub or tree root – some of our huge oaks can have roots that extend amazingly far out from the trunk. If Jeff read this blog or did any online communicating, he could wax eloquent about the many sorts of knives there are, and the various uses of them.

      • Jeff’s knives, of course, apply the same incline plane to wedge principle. “The edge” has been with man since the stone age. Even after the advent of bronze, flint was considered to produce a more surgically precise cut. (See Exodus 4:25). Back to today – In our maintenance of Benton-MacKaye Trail, the Pulaski has proven to be invaluable. One side of the head is an axe, and the other side is a mattock. Julia needs one of these!

        • I wouldn’t know what to do with the mattock – I don’t even know that term! I guess I should look it up. Isn’t it amazing how often we now think “I need to google that?”

  2. Sheila

    Good Thursday morning, Julia. The simple machine that greets me every morning is our coffee maker. We have gone back to the pot of coffee after trying the k-cups for a while.
    This is brief as I’m off to the world of “office machines”. More later…. Sheila

    • Sheila, I thought of the coffee pot when I was writing that post, because I know so many people whose days have started with them for many years. I’ve only ever used a K-cup in a hotel. I started drinking coffee more regularly when Jeff spent that 3 weeks at Walter Reed and it was always on, so at home, I need to make only one cup and I use this neat little gadget which is a VERY simple device that coffee lovers tell me makes quite a good cup. It takes up hardly any space in the cabinet and can be used with any mug or cup – very handy and quick! Hope you have a great day among the machines!

    • Back in the days when the axe was viewed as a necessity, so was coffee! Lists for pilgrims along the Oregon Trail, as well as RCMP required equipment list for the Chilkoot Trail included pounds and pounds of coffee!

      • I know quite a few people who would agree with them! What is RCMP?

    • Sheila

      Bill has never seen a knife that he didn’t love! He is quite the knife collector. Since he is left handed, he searches out those unique knives. You, along with Eric, make me want to buy an axe. From my desk, Sheila

      • Sheila, that’s one more thing we have in common. The only thing Jeff has ever wanted to collect is knives. He’s somewhat ambidextrous (he uses his left hand for some things and his right hand for others) and I don’t really know which hand he would use to hold a knife, nor did I realize they made knives specifically for left-handed people. I learn all sorts of things in these comments.

  3. Sheila

    Bill’s nickname(one of them) is Mr. Gadget. I guess Eric is otherwise known as Paul Bunyan. Glad you asked the RCMP question, Julia. Help these curious blondes out, Paul! Sheila

    • Many associate the famous “Golden Staircase” of the 1897 Klondike gold rush with Alaska; it is true that Skagway, Alaska was the jumping off port for many prospectors (though famous author, Jack London began his journey at Dyea. But theYukon River and Klondike gold fields were under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Boy Julia -Boomdee is gonna be disappointedin you, eh?

      • Hee-hee, that “Paul” really threw me at first. Boomdee is way too sweet to expect me to know anything about the Klondike gold rush or the RMCP. Good thing, because it STILL took me awhile to connect the initials with your answer. It took me long enough to figure out what “USMC” stood for during the years I watched Gomer Pyle. Maybe Boomdee has some added info on the RCMP, which is an interesting topic for sure. I wonder if Dudley Doright was on TV in Canada as well as in the USA?

  4. Carlyle

    I have to get in on this “edge” discussion. I have jealously guarded the Boy Scout axe given me by my Aunt Henrietta when I was 11. It was unique in that day as most axes had wooden handles and this one was advertised as a “Safety Head” because the head and handle were a single steel forgeing. Even now, I carry an axe in the RX.

    Note: What is the difference between an axe and a hatchett?

    • Daddy, That is so cool that you have an axe given to you by Aunt Henrietta, with whom I fancy I share many traits, especially her love of books. I’ve never had as distinguished a job as she had (wasn’t she the first female postmistress of Memphis?) Decades later when we lived in Memphis and visited the old Union Street church, I met two elderly women who remembered her and were thrilled to meet her great-niece. They actually got tears in their eyes when they talked of her. Re: the axe and hatchet question, I have wondered that myself. I have no idea. I always thought an axe had two heads and a hatchet one, or perhaps a hatchet had a shorter handle. But I have never really known. I assume an RX is your vehicle?

  5. Mike Bertoglio

    I have a cool stand up weeder that works great for Dandelions and other weeds. You step down on the weed and t hese two prongs go in along side the weed root. Then you step down on the lever and the prongs come together so that you can pull out the weed with leverage. Digiweeder or something like that.
    What is a double incline plane -Eric? Also did not know that about flint-but I do remember cutting myself on Obsidian.

    • Hey Mike, I have seen those things advertised and wondered if they really work. I HATE it when a taproot breaks off when I pull it after digging around it. I bought another stand-up device that didn’t work so well. Can’t remember exactly what it was; maybe a grass plug planter or bulb planter. I came to the conclusion that sore joints are supposed to go with gardening. I do love my little rolling cart/bench though.

    • Mike – think of two inclined planes arranged as mirror-images of each other. Now press them together with the narrowest ends at one end. Does that help. Going from the first level of complexity to the simple tool, a pulley is to a wheel as a wedge is to an inclined plane.
      To everyone- though many say an axe is used two-handedly and a hatchet with only one hand; you will find many experts referring to short handled chopping tools with the words axe and hatchet used interchangeably. With a reference to cynicism that Carlyle will appreciate about Aunt Hen, everybody knows you have to pay more for an axe than you do for a hatchet 🙂

      • Well, I guess any woman who had a (paid) career back in those days was entitled to be a big spender! 🙂

  6. Oh, wow that list would be so long. I know we take it for granted but since I worked for a communications company for 24 plus years, I would say the telephone. The actual preliminary work of just providing dial tone has a lot of hands involved. While to the customer, it might seem transparent (don’t you just flip a switch they’d say), there was lots of people involved. Now everyone has a cell phone because a vast infrastructure and network was built to provide the service and maintain it. But we don’t really see that as the customer.

    • Good point. There is so much behind the scenes that goes on, that we never know about. Isn’t it funny how we take the telephone for granted? I can well remember when long distance was prohibitively expensive. Jeff and I have talked many times about how hard it must have been for people who moved far away from family — in the military, with job transfers or whatever — before people were able to keep in touch so easily. It must have been terribly difficult to say goodbye in those days, not knowing when or if you would ever see someone again. I think people from even 100 years ago would find the telephone more amazing than email or texting, since you can actually hear the sound of someone’s voice as if they are right next to you when they’re half a world away.

      • That is so true Julia, good-bye was sometimes forever since many, like my great grandfather didn’t read or write even his own name. How very odd to think they didn’t know the joy of books and it’d be isolating to not know or understand signs or the language either.

        • Yes, it seems as if they would need books even more than we do, because of that isolation and being far from what was familiar. In high school I read the book Giants in the Earth by Rolvaag. It’s a grim story in many ways, and helped me realize some degree of what settlers go through.


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