The Things We Make Book Summary - The Things We Make Book explained in key points
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The Things We Make summary

Bill Hammack

The Unknown History of Invention from Cathedrals to Soda Cans

4.4 (186 ratings)
21 mins
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    The Things We Make
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    Understanding the engineering method

    When a master mason in thirteenth-century Europe appeared on the scene of a construction site, he was treated with the utmost respect. His skill and vision were always a cut above the rest, but all that glory would fade if you compared his ability in math with engineers or architects of today. Yet, the mason was still an absolute master of his craft. The evidence is in structures like the Saint-Chappelle in France, Girona Cathedral, and countless other structures across Europe. 

    To build soaring cathedrals with ample space inside the buildings, Christian architects used the pointed arch model that Muslims had learned from Indian Buddhist temples. Easy as it was to copy, it required shrewdness to avoid the massive walls of the cathedral collapsing in on themselves. Thin walls would be suicidal but thick walls would reduce the space inside the cathedral and occupy more land.

    So, how could they build solid expansive cathedrals that still remained safe? They went back to an old but genius technique: they used a rope.

    They draped the rope over the arch, folded it into three equal parts, and used the markings on the rope to divide the arch into three, every third physically marked on the cathedral. Then they measured the distance from a marked spot to the wall of the arch, and extended it by an equal measure, giving them the precise thickness that would sustain that particular arch.

    Through this reliable rule of thumb, the architects obtained the thickness they could build into their walls.

    While building the walls they’d keep a look out for cracks, and if they found any, they’d reinforce them with tougher stone. A mason in possession of high-quality stone would cut three inches from his already strong wall, while another with less luck would add three inches of stone for greater strength.

    Trying to achieve their goal with limited resources, limited time, uncertainty, and no precise knowledge about the nature of their materials, the master masons of Europe applied old rules of thumb in creative ways. That’s the engineering method, and that’s the process all great products have in common.

    They used what they’d learned as apprentices, the knowledge they’d gathered from personal experience, and their intuition to make important decisions, all the while knowing they might make mistakes along the way. The important thing was that they made sure to learn from them.

    It’s like covering the center of the board in a chess game; you might not win, but you increase your odds of winning by first setting yourself up nicely. You find shortcuts. Every field or culture uses rules of thumb obtained from sheer pragmatism and engineers build on it to advance humanity.

    But before taking that leap, they must first know what it is they’re aiming for.

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    What is The Things We Make about?

    The Things We Make (2023) dispels the myth around some of the greatest and most ordinary inventions. It retells their making as a creative application of the engineering method, a principle that explains how people in ancient times built some of the marvels that still capture our imagination today.

    Who should read The Things We Make?

    • Anyone fascinated about how things of beauty and utility are made
    • Engineering history buffs
    • Curious minds trying to apply the engineering method to their own lives

    About the Author

    Bill Hammack is as passionate on a page as he is on YouTube when explaining technological breakthroughs as the viral “Engineer Guy.” His efforts to take engineering to the masses have earned him the Edwin F. Church Medal and Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science. A professor of chemical engineering, he’s also authored and coauthored many engineering books, among them, Eight Amazing Engineering Stories, How Engineers Create the World, and The Chemical History of a Candle.

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