What stops the Shard collapsing
(by the woman who built it)
AppARENTLy Roma Agrawal toyed with calling this book Nuts And Bolts And Washers, but she thought it insufficiently catchy, so here’s the shorter version in all its (considerable) glory.
Agrawal is an engineer, who is also an author and TV presenter, and is probably best known in engineering circles for working on the design of The Shard, the ridiculously brash skyscraper near London Bridge station.
Her book is an answer to a question: how do things work? As she says, engineering is a vast discipline but some of its mightiest achievements have been small in scale.
Inside all the human- made things are fundamental building blocks without which our complex machinery wouldn’t exist.
During the Renaissance, engineers defined six ‘simple machines’ which they saw as being the basis of all complex machines. They were: the lever, the wheel and axle (defined as one), the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge and the screw.
Agrawal thinks these six are outdated and insufficient. So she has come up with her own list of seven, which, she believes, ‘form the basis of the modern world. They encompass a vast range of innovations in terms of their underlying scientific principles, the fields of engineering they touch and the scale of objects they have enabled.’
So, according to Agrawal, we have: the nail, wheel, spring, magnet, lens, string and pump. Each is given its own long chapter in which its history and development are outlined.
‘The invention or discovery of each of these seven pieces of engineering involves a process of failure and iteration: of having a need, then trying out different materials, shape and forms until something worked.’
The nails chapter, for instance. ‘ Buildings, bridges, factories, tractors, cars, phones, locks, watches and washing machines — in fact, most things that need pieces of metal to be attached to each other — have nails, screws, rivets and bolts keeping them together.’
The nail was originally used to join pieces of wood: a new concept to create more robust ships and furniture. Then the screw improved on the nail’s holding power, although it proved much harder to make.
Then, when thin metal sheets could be manufactured cheaply, neither the nail nor screw was fit for purpose, and the rivet came into being.
Small rivets in cooking vessels gave way to larger and stronger rivets to join metal on planes, ships and bridges, before some bright spark invented the bolt, a combination of the rivet and screw, which was stronger and easier to install.
Agrawal reveals that when she goes to the top of the Shard now, it’s mainly to look at and admire the bolts that keep it together and stable. Nails to screws to rivets to bolts: that’s the march of technology summed up in a sentence.
Agrawal’s other job in this book is to be an evangelist for her trade. She feels strongly that more women and more people of colour should consider it as a career.
‘While we think of engineering as a field littered with inanimate objects and complex pieces of technology that often feel alien or beyond our understanding, at the heart of engineering is people: those who create it, those who need or use it, those who sometimes inadvertently make a contribution to it.’
So she talks about the seamstress in Delaware who worried about astronaut Neil Armstrong’s gusset holding; and of the immigrant chemist who thought she had made an error but had inadvertently invented kevlar, the stuff of which bulletproof vests are made.
Engineering, in other histories, tends to be dominated by Western white men, so she has bent over backwards to give women and non-Westerners the credit they often don’t get. This feminist reappraisal is strangely refreshing. Did you know that the dishwasher was invented by a woman? No, me neither.
She also personalises it all rather elegantly. So in the chapter about pumps we get a sequence about how difficult she found breastfeeding her daughter, and what an incredible boon her breast pump turned out to be, before moving on to the more knotty problem of breast pumps for trans women (useable, if you take a drug to make you lactate). She also reveals that she’s not good at flying, which made me think. After all, if an engineer hates flying, and she actually understands why this ridiculous metal tube with wings happens to be airborne, what chance for the rest of us?
I know for a fact that the only reason the plane is flying is because I am willing it to, and that if I lose focus for even a moment, the whole thing will come crashing down in a ball of fire. But it’s her job to tell me that this isn’t so, not agree with me.
This caveat aside, Nuts And Bolts is a splendid book: clearly written, elegantly structured and full of facts you are unlikely to chance upon anywhere else.
Magnets, for instance. Without magnets we would have no automatic telephone exchange: operators would still be putting us through manually. Or televisions, or the computer I am writing this on, or emails or the interweb, and especially not the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which has 9,593 of the things, all switched on and gee- ed up whenever the scientists want to smash sub- atomic particles together.
Or even the dear old telephone. Did you know Alexander Graham Bell originally conceived the ‘phone as an instrument to translate the vibrations of speech into something visual that deaf people could see’? And that when that didn’t work, he invented the telephone as we know it? And that both Bell’s mother and his wife were stone deaf, so he was never able to ring either of them up? All true.