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Taking Stuff Apart

June 9, 2013
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The other day, I was reading one of several new biographies that have been published about Henry Ford. There have been a slew of books recently, because this year marks the automotive pioneer’s 150th birthday (Ford was born on July 30, 1863).

When he was growing up on this family’s farm, Ford often passed away his free time by taking apart mechanical objects. Richard Snow, author of I Invented the Modern Age (Scribner), says Ford loved playing with tools and disassembling objects. In fact, his sister, Margaret, once fondly recalled, “When we had mechanical or wind-up toys given to us at Christmas, we always said ‘Don’t let Henry have them. He just takes them apart.’ He wanted to see what made them go rather than just watching them go.”

In particular, Ford was fascinated by the intricate movement of clocks and watches. According to Vincent Curcio, author of Henry Ford (Oxford), before he started tinkering with horseless carriages, Ford wanted to start a company to mass-produce watches.

“If he could make them for 30 cents each and sell them for 50 cents, a decent profit could be made, provided he could manufacture 2,000 per day,” says Curcio. “Ford even found a partner and worked on designing the requisite machinery.”

Ford’s fascination with precision and mechanical movement eventually helped inspire the moving assembly line several decades later. “Everything moved quickly, like the second hand on a pocket watch,” says Snow, describing the operation of Ford’s revolutionary Highland Park plant.

Taking things apart is still a common trait among many engineers. If you share this passion, I suggest picking up a copy of a new book entitled Things Come Apart (Thames & Hudson). It’s filled with interesting photos that showcase the inner workings of 50 everyday objects—everything from a chainsaw to a sewing machine and a camera to a piano. And, in case there are any aspiring Henry Ford’s out there, there’s even a mechanical watch and a digital watch.

The book features exploded views of all the parts and components that make up each product, including everything from the smallest screw to the biggest gear. With 175 photographs revealing 21,959 components (plus several short essays about the joy of disassembling products), the book offers an interesting perspective on the nuances of manufacturing.

“The thrilling part about disassembling an object myself, even before the photography, is the opportunity to understand the manufacturer’s challenge,” says Todd McLellan, the author of Things Come Apart. “I gain a better understanding of how the item works and, in turn, a greater respect for it.”

If more people were exposed to this view of the inside of products, perhaps it could help the general public gain a better appreciation for the basic concepts behind product design and assembly.

Did you like taking things apart when you were younger? Did this inspire you to become an engineer or pursue a career in manufacturing? Do you still like taking stuff apart today? If you have any interesting stories to share, I’d love to hear about your disassembly experiences.

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