I always put on and remove my wristwatch by holding my arm over upholstered furniture like my bed. This came about several years ago when I fumbled with the strap on my favorite watch and dropped it on the floor. The impact knocked the seconds hand off of the movement and the mechanism wouldn’t run for more than a few minutes. To have the watch repaired cost half as much as the watch was worth to replace.
The watchmaker repaired the piece and had it ready for me to pick up within a week. He passed along some gentle advice about caring for a watch. He included a term that I love for it’s sheer elegance. He said something to the effect that owners who have mechanical sympathy, automatically take good care of their timepieces. The watchmaker recommended putting on and taking off a watch while positioning the arm directly over a table or desk. Ideally, a nice watch should only be put on and taken off over a bed. Remembering the bill for the watchmaker’s services motivated me to make caution a habit.
The term, “Mechanical Sympathy” was coined by three-time World Driving Champion Sir Jackie Stewart. The race car champ compared how average drivers with how the best race car drivers think about their vehicles.
The average, normal drivers we encounter every day on the streets and highways have the basic mechanical knowledge. We know that pressing the accelerator pedal causes the car to speed up and pressing the brake pedal causes the car to slow to a stop. The mental image becomes more sophisticated when driving on slippery road surfaces when tires spin upon acceleration and slide when braking. The mental image becomes more nuanced when we mentally picture the effects of friction and inertia.
Drivers of vehicles with manual transmission have a little more knowledge about the workings of their cars because another element of mechanical interaction is necessary to control the vehicle. There is the subtle mental image of the clutch engaging and disengaging to enable gear shifting and to keep from stalling the engine when applying the brakes.
Taking the interaction between car and driver up several notches, is what race car drivers do. To successfully compete, they must drive their vehicles to the limits of their abilities, the mechanical capabilities of the racing car and the physics of car versus road. The best drivers have practiced this interaction to the point of it all coming together reflexively.
World champion drivers take these mental concepts even further. They intimately understand the suspension system and its characteristics on various types of tarmac. They picture not only the effects of the acceleration, braking, and clutching, they “become one” with the car as an interdependent unit. This interdependent unit becomes a sort of living creature that skillfully maneuvers around the race track. It is this synergy that Stewart called “Mechanical Sympathy”.
Mechanical Sympathy manifests in many other forms. For instance, a world class organist understands how the bellows provides air to the instrument’s pipes; the materials used in the pipes’ construction, how the various stops and trackers operate, the instrument’s limitations, along with the characteristics of the keys and pedals at the console. This mental attitude enables the organist to truly become one with the instrument when playing music.
These days, mechanical sympathy is an aspect of computing. By having an intimate knowledge of the hardware, software creators can design systems for maximum performance. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of both the hardware and the software enable designers to come up with new solutions for more efficient computing systems.
Anyone can cultivate mechanical sympathy. If you’re interested, a good start is to read the owner’s manual for your vehicle. Better yet, download a copy of the vehicle’s shop manual. Open the hood of the car and learn about the various things located in that part of the car.
If cars aren’t your cup of tea, mechanical sympathy can be improved by learning more about the workings of the things that you work with each day like your phone or computer or whatever.
Mechanical Sympathy is a beautiful feeling.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Sir Jackie Stewart. “I would have been a much more popular World Champion if I had always said what people wanted to hear. I might have been dead, but definitely more popular.”