Alexan­der McCall Smith looks at the re­new­able po­ten­tial of an age-old mech­a­nism

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

The toys of child­hood have a spe­cial place in mem­ory. I was the proud owner of a steam en­gine, the wa­ter of which was heated by a methy­lated spir­its stove – I imag­ine health and safety would make those il­le­gal to­day. Then there was Mec­cano, with its cu­ri­ous metal pieces and its tiny nuts and bolts. And if any­thing moved or pro­pelled it­self, this was done, for the most part, through clock­work.

My prize pos­ses­sion was a clock­work aero­plane, a clumsy pressed tin con­struc­tion, the painted win­dows of which re­vealed the pi­lot and the pas­sen­gers within. The wind­ing of this plane’s mech­a­nism pro­duced a rapid whirring of a small pro­pel­ler. That was all, but it was enough at a time when toys with bat­ter­ies were an im­pos­si­ble lux­ury, and mostly yet to be in­vented. Of course there is a point to be made here be­yond the sim­ple nos­tal­gic one: a child­hood with­out bat­ter­ies, with­out elec­tron­ics, makes for a more imag­i­na­tive child. There are stud­ies to this ef­fect (I think) al­though such stud­ies are of­ten dif­fi­cult to lo­cate when you want to make a point. At a push, of course, one can sim­ply say ‘it’s self-ev­i­dent’. That some­times con­vinces oth­ers, some­times not.

The im­por­tant thing about clock­work is that it’s still around, and now, we hear, it’s about to make a ma­jor come­back in the push for re­new­able en­ergy. Clock­work is not only sustainable, it is also com­pletely re­new­able. All you have to do is wind it. It makes very lit­tle noise – other than a re­as­sur­ing tick-tock – it emits no CO2, and there is am­ple avail­able power to drive the mech­a­nism. The to­tal en­ergy avail­able for clock­work de­vices is the same as the to­tal en­ergy that can be mus­tered by hu­man man­ual ef­fort at any one time. This is vast.

Clock­work en­ergy is cur­rently used for rel­a­tively few de­vices. There are still some kitchen timers op­er­ated by a clock­work mech­a­nism, even if most of th­ese have been re­placed by elec­tronic de­vices that do the same thing. Clock­work ones are bet­ter, though, as they emit a tick­ing sound be­fore their bell rings – thus re­mind­ing you dur­ing the process that you must lis­ten for the fi­nal bell. Some clocks are still driven by clock­work, and the more ex­pen­sive wrist­watches, chronome­ters mostly, have clock­work as op­posed to quartz mech­a­nisms. Th­ese watches are ap­pre­ci­ated by peo­ple to whom time is pre­cious. Clock­work wrist­watches are un­de­ni­ably chic.

Apart from that, though, the clock­work in­dus­try has been al­lowed to run down. So when we were told re­cently that clock­work cars will soon be ap­pear­ing on Scot­land’s roads

– on a trial ba­sis – those con­cerned with re­new­able en­ergy took a close in­ter­est. The Scot­tish Govern­ment, ea­ger to make Scot­land’s en­ergy pro­file greener, is said to be ex­tremely in­ter­ested. ‘You’re not wind­ing us up on this?’ com­mented a spokesman, be­fore say­ing, ‘We think this is pos­si­bly the fu­ture’.

The pro­to­type clock­work cars be­ing de­vel­oped by a start-up firm in Mother­well – or pos­si­bly Airdie – are the re­sult of pi­o­neer­ing clock­work re­search con­ducted at the Univer­sity of Strath­clyde. The univer­sity’s re­search team has, over the last three years, de­vel­oped a large-scale clock­work mech­a­nism, the weight of which com­pares favourably with that of mod­ern all-elec­tric car bat­ter­ies. The clock­work mech­a­nism, though, has the ad­van­tage of hav­ing a much smaller eco­log­i­cal foot­print than a car bat­tery, which re­quires elec­tric­ity to be charged, with all the pol­lu­tion that this en­tails fur­ther down the line.

The pro­to­type has a sat­is­fac­tory 0 to 60 ac­cel­er­a­tion rate slightly be­low that of an av­er­age fam­ily car. Where the dis­ad­van­tages come in, though, are range and the time taken to wind the car once the ini­tial wind­ing has dis­charged. At present the range of the car on a full wind is a lit­tle un­der a mile. If the car trav­els at speed, that drops to 800 yards – in­com­pa­ra­ble to the 250 miles of­fered by the most ex­pen­sive all-elec­tric cars – but as the mo­tor­ing press of­ten points out, range claims made by elec­tric car man­u­fac­tur­ers are rarely de­liv­ered in real driv­ing con­di­tions.

Will such a small range mean that drivers will not be at­tracted to clock­work cars? The de­vel­op­ers think oth­er­wise: they point out that many peo­ple do not want to go too far, and for th­ese users the car will sat­isfy the need to travel to the end of the street or just around the cor­ner. As for wind­ing time, at present it takes just un­der an hour to wind the car com­pletely. In fam­i­lies, this can be done in shifts, with chil­dren do­ing shorter wind­ing ses­sions ac­cord­ing to age.

I have not yet tested a clock­work car, but one has been dis­patched from Mother­well – or Air­drie – for a test drive. It left last Mon­day, and is ex­pected in Ed­in­burgh by Fri­day. I am look­ing for­ward to see­ing it.

Clock­work is not only sustainable, it is also com­pletely re­new­able

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