I often wonder what the result would be if young children were able to take pen and ink and write down their ideas of life. What a charming book it would make, but how sadly visionary and unreal the terrestrial paradise it would describe.
Of course, there would be no lack of money, and I suppose the lords and ladies would not be too proud to eat plum cake and gingerbread, and there would be no end of lollipops and apples, to say nothing of toys and other necessaries of life. As to books, I am afraid there would not be a very large supply, but the standard works would be “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” and “ Alice in Wonderland;” and no doubt reading and writing would be natural accomplishments that would come as a matter of course like the first teeth.
It is certain that no lesson is more unpalatable to the youthful mind than the teachings of experience. Who does not remember that horrible pill, “My dear, when you are older you will know better.” We had to swallow it many a time and often, but I fancy we did not keep it down, for we believed that our young ideas were quite as valuable as those of our elders, and rather more so. In fact, we all begin life much in the same way, and accordingly knock our heads from day to day against one and another unwelcome fact which we did not believe to exist until thus practically reminded of its presence.
We are all considerably self-willed, and we all have our respective ideas of what the world is, as well as what it ought to be, and I daresay we all fancy that if we could have arranged terrestrial affairs according to our own very wise plans we could have managed it a great deal better than it has been managed for us.
No doubt the schoolboy would have arranged his world with unlimited cake, cricket bats, and pocket money; and it is just possible that some of us older boys would like unlimited supplies of tools and mechanical appliances; at any rate I confess that when my own visionary fortune becomes a reality, I mean to have a workshop that will make the members of the A. M. S. rabid with envy; for my terrestrial paradise will be replete with all that is so dear to the mechanical mind.
Yes, there it is again! down comes that editorial sledge hammer, “The Teachings of Experience,” and smashes up all my treasures. Back to earth again then I will come, and back to earth must come the sanguine amateur to learn this same unpalatable lesson that he must allow experience to become his master, and listen very meekly to that master’s teachings.
Few amateurs have patience to learn from those who have themselves learnt the best way of doing things by years of thoughtful practice. They buy a lathe and as soon as they can get it together away they go, and very soon imagine themselves adepts. If a neighbouring mechanic looks in, they are more than half inclined to give him a lesson, but he; on the other hand, justly smiles at the unworkmanlike operation going on, although he discreetly holds his tongue, knowing that his advice would not be taken, however civilly offered.
So generally is this the case, that no true workman thus circumstanced will volunteer to give advice at all; he knows that he has nothing to fear in the way of rivalry, and is inclined to adopt the trite proverb, “It amuses him, and it doesn’t hurt me,” and so he goes on his way, and the amateur goes on his, and no harm is done, but the latter is decidedly a loser by his foolish self-assertion.
I am an amateur myself, not a very first rate one, I daresay; but if I had been more teachable, I am painfully aware I should ultimately have made a better teacher. I don’t mean to say that I utterly despised the instructions of working men, and, indeed, from a very early age I made good use of my eyes and ears; but I fancied I could do many things better than my professional neighbours.
The village blacksmith appeared to me to work clumsily. The carpenter did not seem to use his tools with much precision, nor to work with much judgment. His cousin, who was basket-maker and turner to the neighbourhood, I regarded with something akin to pity, because he was always engaged on outside work, and had no array of hooked and crooked inside tools like my “set,” arranged in a cabinet by H. & Co.
But one day I chanced to see him hollow out a softwood vase with his gouge alone, and that with no sense of accomplishing a feat, but in course of ordinary work, at a few pence for the job, and I went home to find that I could not do it at all, and thence I became, I suppose, in the orthodox way, “a sadder but wiser man.” At the same time too proud to ask to be shown how to do this work by a man I had considered and treated as an inferior, I had to do battle with the gouge for many a long day before I succeeded in using it creditably for inside work, whereas, if I had condescended to ask for a lesson it would no doubt have been readily granted, and I should have learned my work without wasting a great deal of precious time.
I am speaking of a time now sufficiently remote, but I fancy a very large number of amateurs might enter the same confessional box if they cared to make a clean breast of it. Nevertheless, experience is not always to be followed blindly. From time to time new and improved methods of work spring up, which, being novelties, meet with a vast amount of opposition, but eventually survive to annihilate the teachings of past experience, and we commence upon a new track.
Such, for instance, was the case with the use of the scraper, introduced by Whitworth as an improvement on the established mode of producing a level surface by grinding with emery. It was greatly opposed by the old hands, who relied upon their own past experience, but the acknowledged scientific and mechanical attainments of the master prevailed, and eventually the new process was adopted, to the satisfaction of the workmen themselves as well as their employer.
Experience may perhaps not be inaptly compared to a ladder by which we rise to a higher condition of civilization and knowledge, but we sometimes remain upon one step till it becomes rotten beneath our feet; and because custom has decided that the step in question is to be deemed a sound one, in spite of appearances to the contrary, we do not move upward and onward until some master hand fairly knocks the worn out step from under us. Then we look back and wonder that we remained upon it so long.
At the same time, we can’t go up our ladder with a hop, step and jump, as too many of our amateur mechanics want to do; the result being that after they have ascended as they believe a great many steps, they are compelled to come down and begin again, to the great waste of time and money, to say nothing of mental discomfiture.
There is an enormous number of facts connected with mechanical manipulation that no amount of reading can teach. The process, whatever it may be, may be described accurately, even to the revealing of trade secrets, but to know how to do it will be found one thing, and actually to accomplish it quite another. But starting with our letter-press knowledge we gradually gain the necessary experience by trials and failures until the desired end is reached.
Some of us are absolutely compelled to buy experience at this somewhat costly rate, and others again are more fortunately situated and can gain the required knowledge by at once adopting as their own the dear bought experience of others. This is decidedly the better plan, and we cordially commend it to all our younger amateurs.
To reach perfection in any art (and of mechanical art it is specially true) pride and self esteem must be thrown to the winds, and the old maxim must be accepted, “He that thinketh he knoweth anything, knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know it,” and as Tupper writes, “In viewing the heights above thee thou shalt be taught thy littleness.”
Of course a great deal of self acquired experience of immense value must be added day by day to that of others who have trodden the same paths, but “private experience is an unsafe teacher, for we rarely learn both sides,” and the most successful mechanic is he who knows how to weigh justly the merits of his own experience and that of others, and can adopt what is of sterling worth, to the rejection of what is valueless.
A young friend of the writer’s became an apprentice to the business of a mechanical engineer, and among other things he was told to try his hand at getting up a surface by scraping. Like many a youngster learning a new trade, he fancied he knew all about it, because he had read in some one or two mechanical works the routine to be observed and the modus operandi.
Taking a three square file to the grindstone he commenced by fabricating a scraper. He then took a surface plate and daubed it pretty handsomely with red lead and oil, and after having used the file as much as he deemed expedient (it was not much, owing to his anxiety to commence scraping), he rubbed the work upon the trial plate and found it handsomely coated all over with the exception of one or two very much depressed parts.
Result? He began to scratch his head to get at the seat of knowledge by a scraping process. What was to be done next? Here was a mess of reddened oil upon which it was evident the scraper would have no useful effect, and indeed when tried it did not seem to cut at all, but merely shifted the oleaginous mess a little further as it passed over it.
If this lad had been left to hammer out his own experience, what a lot of precious time he would have wasted, and equally but more criminally so if he had despised the instruction ready to be afforded him. The teaching he received from an experienced workman who had purposely let him go wrong in order to learn his own ignorance was this:
“Clean off all that red mess till you can hardly see it upon the plate; lay aside your scraper till you know how to use it as a hand turning tool, and grind off the end of a taper flat file at right angles, carrying the grinding process an inch or so up each side from the end, and getting entirely rid of every trace of the teeth, and give the two flat sides a rub on the oilstone. Now rub your work on the plate, which will just mark the high place with patches of nearly dry colour, and pushing the tool from you, holding it at a low angle, scrape away gently but firmly.”
After a few trials carefully conducted, the lad found scraping a process of no great difficulty, and of far greater rapidity than might be supposed. Now here is a very good instance of the immense value of practical experience over book knowledge. As regards the scraper itself, I am aware that many have a predilection for a triangular tool, but the Americans use one with a flat or very slightly rounded end which is turned down at right angles to the shank of the tool…
I could say a good deal more on the value of experience, but will not try my readers’ patience any further. It will, however, always be found that a really good workman has a reason for working in the particular way and with the particular tools he has adopted, and that reason is his own experience partly gathered from the labours of others, and partly self acquired.
The Journal of the Amateur Mechanical Society – October, 1877