My Favorite 'Mechanics' or Makers in Literature
For the past three weeks I have celebrated some of my favorite fictional mechanics, makers, builders, tinkerers, and innovators as seen in popular pop culture sources such as Disney characters, Comic Books, and in Science Fiction television and movies, but those wish busy minds and hands have been dreaming big dreams of building something better long before any of these things were popular.
To finish my series, here are my five favorite fictional mechanics, builders, or innovators from classic literature.
Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
There is very little known about Nemo, also called Prince Dakka, but Verne lets us know quite a bit about his crown achievement: The Nautilus.
Verne was inspired by a World’s Fair display in Paris in 1867, and mixed it with a little of his own learnings about electricity and battery power even before submarines were exploring ocean depths.
He put some serious thought into Nemo’s innovative features, too. There’s a platform and wheelhouse where a navigator can see all around. This way, a periscope isn’t needed. We learn from Verne the Nautilus is a long, cylindrical vessel with tapered front, as well as a double hull and interior watertight compartments, and we learn about the many essential instruments on board as well as the layout of the living quarters, dining room and library, galley, storage, and common room that is also a museum.
Even the name has meaning as a finless Nautilus mollusk has the ability to “propel” itself though the water using air chambers in its shell. The Nautilus’s engine room has its own method of pumping and circulating a breathable air supply.
“I owe everything to the ocean,” Nemo explained. “It generates electricity, and electricity gives the Nautilus heat, light, motion, and, in a word, life itself.'”
Time Traveller from The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
For the amount of movies, stories, and lore it inspired, the actual book is a pretty slim read. Very few of the characters have proper names, and the Time Traveller's trip into a futurre 802,701 years from now where man has split into frail, childlike intellectuals the Eloi, and the ape-like "working class," Morlocks, ends on an unhappy note. Not to mention his jump to a crumbling world 30 million years later.
However, it was this Victorian era read in 1895 that made people really think about the possibility — which is still an impossibility — of time travel.
Why couldn't the Time Traveller do it? He had worked on a flying machine (that failed), but also invented several other machines powered by the crystaline substance plattnerite, which is a real oxide mineral (the beta crystalline form of lead dioxide).
Most importantly, to add to his credibility as a time-machine maker, he already owned a Horsesless Carriage that broke a speed record of more than 17 miles per hour!
Get out of his way!
From flying cars to time machines to tree houses, literature is filled with innovators. Image: Lisa Tate
William Robinson from Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
To be fair, the entire family (wife Elizabeth and sons Fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz) is responsible for the world's greatest treehouse, and its surrounding island features.
Even before they made it to the island, William and family were already putting their builders' minds to use constructing vessels out of tubs to get them from the shipwreck to the island.
That's where the real survival skills and engineering know-how kicked in. They made several trips to back and forth to the boat and island to get every piece they could possibly use and upcycle, as well as livestock, ammuition and other needs. They started with a tent and, as a family, constructed a treehouse that would be part of their "New Switzerland" with its own bevy of natural resources.
For a book set on a remote island it filled with the Robinson inventions such as spoons and bowls made from calabash trees, self-rowing canoes, "crushing machines," and several different types of houses. There's the tree houses, a winter house in a cave, tent homes, and many gardens. You don't have to be "outdoorsy" to appreciate the work done by this family, albeit out of necessity.
Even the pop-culture world inspired by it is still appealing today, from movies to reality television to theme park attractions, all demonstrating how people can use what they have to build what they need. This was sustainable living before the "green" movement discovered it.
Anyone who has ever visited Disneyland parks' "Swiss Family Treehouse" (now called "Tarzan's Treehouse" but with pretty much the same interactive features), knows how awesome it would be to try to build one of these things.
Caractacus Pott from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car by Ian Fleming
James Bond may drive some of the most beautiful cars in cinema, and (thanks to Q) enjoy a few leathal "extras," but Bond creator Ian Fleming's most extraordinary car was in his children's story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Inventor Caractacus Pott has been using money from his confectionary inventions to renovate a Paragon Panther, the only car produced from the bankrupted Paragon Motor-Car Company. It is a good sized four-seat touring car with a huge hood (bonnet). The "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" name comes from the sound the car makes from its starter motor and backfires.
While Pott wanted the car to originally just be a powerful vehicle, there were a few discoveries from the car itself. A simple pull of a lever and the car wlll sprout wings to better fly over and away from traffic jams. Another switch can turn the car into a sort of hovercraft, and it seems to be sentient with tracking abilities. Pott didn't really build all these elements, but they would have remained undiscovered without him.
Even at the end of the book, when the car flies the family away to worlds unknown, it is still hinted there are even more secrets to this fabulous automobile.
Forget the pestering earworm music from the movie — not the mention the Child Catcher who has given kids nightmares for generations — the car is king in the book... and it flies!
If Frankenstein has taught us anything, even if you can build something that doesn't mean you should. Image: Lisa Tate
Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley
As we enter the haunting season, one of literature's most famous monster stories is a gothic tale about a man who's knowlege and passion for creating has gone way too far: Victor Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was curious and focused on learning more about the power of the natural world (including the electricity created by lightning) as well as the nature of life and death. He knew his science and engineering, but his greatest building blocks were parts of other people; hence the subtitle referring to Greek god Prometheus who builds mankind from clay.
This didn't go so well. His "creature" was also called in the book a "monster," "daemon," "wretch," "abortion," and "fiend." Wow, and modern designers think today's critics are harsh.
Frankenstein himself isn't the only impressive "creator" here. Shelley, inspired by the concept of "galvanism" in which electrical currents can make dead things movie or spasm, penned this tale between the age of 18 and 20.
Shelley had described this creature's manufacturing process in her her own terms in the book: "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth."
When you think about it, Frankenstein's creature was one of the earliest hybrids.
The really scary thing about this is, seeing the advancements in being able to reattach human limbs, as well as increasing success in organ transplants, the creature might someday become a reality. Maybe not, but something fun to muse on in October.
I remember hearing a description of the book saying: Smart readers know Frankenstein isn’t the name of the monster. Very smart readers realize Frankenstein is the monster.
This sums thing up beautifully. Builders, makers, engineers and innovators dream. They dream of flying cars, and diving boats. They dream of sustainable living, and the impossible concept of time travel. And they dream of extending life or even cheating death.
Yet in the wake of building our creations, we tend to forget, some things perhaps, shouldn’t be built at all.