As I have noted before, I have done practical projects around the house for 18 months or more. I haven’t done a project just for fun since the infinite baffle sub-woofer (which still sounds awesome – to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, if you have the space/time, I heartily recommend it). The end of the current work is in sight, and my soul is in need of something more challenging. And, having built a tool for laying flooring a few days ago, I have been musing a fair bit on what it would take to try and build the refinements of modern life completely from scratch. And I really do mean from scratch – I wonder how far one could get if you have all the knowledge of modern world, but not one gram of refined material; just basic ores, wood, stones and other raw materials.
Clearly, there are limitations. Whilst theoretically possible to get as far as the X-ray photolithography required to make 60nm silicon chips or automated genome sequencers , it would take several lifetimes to do it. But, even more basic end-goals such as a simple steam engine or a metal clock would be fascinating to attempt (we discussed this a bit over dinner, and Kat says why don’t I build something useful like hair straighteners!). Even doing that would require building quite a few fairly technical tools – for example a really flat surface (harder than it sounds) or a lathe. I’d find it fascinating to really have to build everything along the way, since I suspect that you’d learn a hell of a lot along the way. And, it would be intriguing to see if one could make life easier by jumping the way technology evolved. For example, it might be possible to use aluminium rather than steel, since the larger effort involved in smelting it would be outweighed by the considerably easier time in machining it.
I think there should be some rules involved to make the challenge tractable but still challenging. Most obvious is that absolutely everything should start as it does in the natural world – so, for example any ores should not be refined. However, I think one caveat should be allowed on raw materials – anything available anywhere in the world should be fair game, even if it is mined from a mile underground. The objective, after all, is not to experience the deprivations of mining by candle light! The next part is that once some material has been made then it’s ok to source that material directly, as long as it is of identical quality to that made. As an example, if I succeed in smelting steel from scratch, I won’t consider it necessary to build a large scale furnace just to get larger quantities, as long as I am sourcing a virtually identical material. That just saves huge repetition that one would otherwise farm out to other folks. Lastly, there should be a clean break of everything but knowledge – so, for example, no tools at all are allowed that aren’t made, right down to rulers, hammers, and blades.
I’m not seeing this as a quick project – more one to have ticking along in the background that might take a few years to get to somethine that looks good. But, then I’d really be able to say I built it myself!