Family Portrait
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Family Portrait

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The notion that mechanical progress was in itself a liberating influence has remained unchallenged, on the whole, throughout the nineteenth century. . . .

—Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine

The young man in this photograph, right hand calmly resting on a traumatically bent and twisted keyed shaft, exudes a comfortable confidence that, bad as it looks, this humpty dumpty is family and will be put back together again. Machinery in its infancy, like an errant child, needed the steady and loving guidance of a parent. And we were a mechanically enamored people. As John Steinbeck observed in 1945: “Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars.”

On a factual basis, not much is really known about the photograph. I found it between the pages of my grandfather’s notebook a year after his death. Nobody recalled ever seeing it. For forty-two years he was the superintendent of the city light company in my hometown of Centralia, Washington, so his interest in power-generating machinery was natural. I have shown the eight-by-ten glossy photograph to dozens of knowledgeable friends, and the best guess that has emerged is that the scene is a water turbine whose governor failed, allowing it to over-rev, to the splendid departure of parts.

An equally if not more interesting question is why we are no longer drawn to be photographed next to the disastrous failures of man-made structures. The past century is littered with pictures of entire families next to derailed steam locomotives, exploded farm tractor boilers, fallen railroad trestles, and beached ocean vessels. Coded within the silver nitrate lie volumes about humankind’s changing relationship with technology. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, unlike other media the photograph isolates a single moment in time. We have the benefit—and the challenge—of studying that moment at a later date. [End Page 873]

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Putting the harder cultural question to those knowledgeable friends produced even more guarded speculation: You can see it on TV in real time, why drive? Everything is so dependable now that when man-made structures do fail the tragedy overshadows any desire to be associated with it. Who cares? Throw it away and get another. In today’s “me” world, who wants to be associated with failure? Hey, the machines don’t need our help, they can self-diagnose, like a new car with its onboard computer.

Such guesses hint at the disconnect, but they fail to satisfy. My own conclusion is that the machine has grown up. It is no longer the cute baby we love and marvel at, whose transgressions we forgive because of its infinitely bright future. It is an adult child we don’t fully understand, a paradox. Raised in a liberal household, it grew into a conservative whose failures disappoint or even frighten. And for many, it’s simple and sad. As B. B. King sings, the thrill is gone. [End Page 875]

Tom Hull

Tom Hull teaches manufacturing at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, Oregon.