Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Breakfast Machine

O, Technology, I have a crush on you, from the innards of my MacBook to the Large Hadron Collider. I get misty over a good space shuttle launch, or a magnified view of the tiny spinning gears of a pocket watch. Good lord, but I love mankind's machines and contraptions.

I have a special soft spot for a certain invention, a Rube-Goldbergian peculiarity of Western pop culture: the Breakfast Machine. Pee-Wee Herman's got one, Wallace and Gromit have one--my personal touchstone is an earlier model, the breakfast machine from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (pictured above), in which the plates arrive on a wee train while a series of ferris wheels and levers crack eggs and distribute sausages, leaving crackpot widower Dick Van Dyke free to sing to his kids about how much he loves them. And dadgummit, they love him back, even if it does take the man a week to fry a freaking egg.

Maybe that's it. I cannot join the no-fun Luddites, who proclaim that technology will lead us to ruin, who pray for a Great Unplugging, and, like bloodthirsty French Revolutionaries cheering tumbrels on the road to the guillotine, would rejoice at the sight of shredded wiring and shattered motherboards strewn in the streets. But neither can I join with the no-soul techno-drones, who would take a beautiful machine and use it merely as a way to make us go faster and faster until we drop from exhaustion and despair.

But the breakfast machine is the best of both worlds. It is a pure celebration of humanity's hard-earned, intricate understanding of physics and engineering, but it doesn't save any time or pocket any money for the Man at all. If that's not punk rock, I don't know what is. The breakfast machine is a love letter to Newcomen and Thoreau all at once. It is absolutely pointless, but cannot be built without hard work and a brilliant mind. The breakfast machine is a way for the elegant clockwork of the universe, through the eyes of its sentient carbon-based children, to admire itself.

And that's just cracking, Gromit.

Bonus: Remember that classic piece of "machinery" music? C'mon, you know the one I'm talking about: the ubiquitous soundtrack of every cartoon that ever featured a crazy machine or the chugging of an industrial production line in a factory. I'm sure you're humming it in your head right now. It's called "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott.

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