Simplicity in Engineering

Some technologies seem more resilient than others. Certain developments remain virtually unchanged throughout history from the day they were first invented until now. Others seem to exist only to fade away into irrelevancy. I have a theory on why things remain. It appears that the major deciding factor in the longevity of usefulness of a technology is inversely proportional to its complexity.

The simplest of all machines, the wheel, was invented thousands of years ago in the great river culture of Mesopotamia and has remained almost unchanged every since. Other technologies have existed in various states of purity for just as long. Recording ideas on paper, fireworks, trigonometry, and much of ship design are just a few ideas that humanity has built upon over the centuries but not changed significantly.

In engineering we identify ‘break points’. The more complicated a design the more ‘break points’ it has. If a car has power windows, power locks, and an onboard GPS those are all break points — unnecessary complexities that make the system, as a whole, more fragile.

Take, for example, a camera. There are many cameras still in use today that are fifty or even a hundred years old. These cameras have no motors, no auto focus, and no zoom lenses, but they still work. A camera purchased today probably has a use life of five or six years if you’re lucky (if it’s built into a cell phone it’s probably closer to one year). However, at the heart of all cameras — new or old — is the same basic principle of light being focused through refractive lenses onto some photosensitive material that records an image. In the case of an 8×10 bellows camera there is nothing else to it. In the case of most modern cameras there are focusing motors, vibration reduction motors and sensors, zoom motors, computer chips, light sensors, focusing sensors, accelerometers, display interfaces, and hundreds of springs and latches and other ‘break points’ hidden inside.

This simplicity contributes greatly to longevity. Ever since I was little I have been told that in the future there would be flying cars. In the 1980’s it was predicted to happen by the late 1990’s. It still hasn’t happened because the wheel is good enough. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it works and it has significantly fewer break points with less drastic breaking scenarios.

Simplicity equals usefulness. Usefulness equals immortality.


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