I love working out how things work.

One summer, as a teenager, I visited London. My sister had a flat in south London and I stayed with her. She was working during the day so I went out and explored. And coming from a small town in the countryside in Northern Ireland there was a lot to explore.

In London, as a tourist, you’re drawn to South Kensington. It is where most of the museums are. You get off the tube and walk through a long underground walkway, choosing where to emerge based on what museum you want to visit. For art and design you’ll go to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Or you go to the Natural History Museum to be blown away by scale of the Blue Whale model hanging from the ceiling. (1)

It was the science museum that captured me. 

I didn’t get past the first section on the ground floor, the Energy Hall where they ‘trace the remarkable story of steam’. This is the section that most people walk through to get to the more interesting bits, like Exploring Space and the IMAX theatre. This little bit is made up lots of models of steam engines that you view in their perspex cases.

If anyone would have taken the time to pay attention to me I must have looked quite odd. Not in the moment. At a glance I was just standing by a display and looking at it. The weirdness would only have been visible over time. That I was spending 10-20 minutes looking at one model, giving it my complete and undivided attention, then I’d move to the next model and repeat. I stayed in the energy hall until closing time.

What was going on?

I love working out how things work. I love solving puzzles.

In finding an evolution of steam engines I’d hit a nerdy nirvana.

I’d look at each model and try to work out what it did and how each bit worked. What turned what. How one type of motion got converted to another type of motion.

As you went through the models you travelled through time. Seeing what the engineers had learnt and how they had adapted the engines to be more efficient, to provide different types of motion, to be safer.

Each engine told a story. 

At some point the engines gained two metal balls hanging off rods that seemed to spin with the engine. Why? I stare at the engine and think. The balls are spinning, so as they spin faster centrifugal force will cause them to lift out. The top of those rods seem to be connected to a valve. Is this a safety device?

These are steam engines powered by burning coal to heat water in a boiler. My mind goes to the men working on this machine. I imagine being beside the engine. The cacophonous noise, the smell of the grease, the turning gears, many larger than a man. If it starts to run hot, producing too much steam, what do you do? The engine running normally will be powerful and impressive, but that turns to fear as it goes faster and faster. If it goes too fast it will tear itself apart. If you are unlucky enough to be near you’ll be killed by flying metalwork. Or is it worse to survive? To have to knock on a door and explain to some poor woman that she is now a widow, their children have no father, and here are a few shillings from the company.

Maybe that is why those balls spin. When the engine turns too fast they lift up, opening a valve and releasing the steam pressure. Calmly and efficiently limiting the speed of the machine and keeping everyone around it safe.(2)

That is how I could spend 10 minutes looking at a single model, entertained and engaged.

If you cut me I bleed an engineer’s blood.

If I were born a hundred years ago I would be building bridges or trains. In the modern world I write software. 

Working out how things work in startup land

The desire to work out how things work has never left me. In moving from corporate software jobs to the startup world my horizons moved beyond technical problems. Now psychology fascinates me. How do people make the decisions they make, and live the lives they live? What makes a web site engaging? How come some great products don’t sell, yet mediocre ones fly off the shelf?

It isn’t as simple as gears and levers, but there is logic there. It is knowable.

This is all I can publish right now. My intention is to segue from the engineering background into my fascination for how things work in the modern business world. I might try to finish this for next week.

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[1] It is worth returning to the station overground. Look out for the shrapnel damage to the stone work on the buildings. See if you work out what building got destroyed by bombing during the second world war.

[2] I was close but not completely right in my teenage analysis. These things are centrifugal governors. They exist to make the engine run at a constant speed, despite the variability in the amount of steam the fire and boiler produce.