Ames gunstock

Ames Gunstock Lathe in the Science Museum’s Making of the Modern World exhibition

The Ames Gunstock Lathe is a tool for carving rifle gunstocks from wood. It functions by running a probe over an already shaped “template” gunstock. The probe is mechanically linked to a cutting head that produces an identical copy from a wooden blank.

According to geographer Jarred Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, the ability to make guns has shaped global history. Ian Morris, in his book Why The West Rules For Now echoes this sentiment, suggesting that mass-produced guns tipped the power balance away from nomadic tribes and in favour of the sedentary urban populations that we now take to be defining feature of civilisation. Mechanisms such as this lathe are clearly influential in the broad sweep of history.

Specifically, this tool was built in the Springfield Armoury in the United States. The facility’s ability to mass produce guns had a profound effect on American history, and is now a national monument and museum for this reason. The production techniques pioneered there also seeded the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

In terms of historical impact, this exhibit couldn’t have much better credentials for inclusion in a gallery about the making of the modern world. It was the novelty of the mechanism that caught my attention, but what set me thinking more deeply was the attached description:

“This machines’ legacy is the computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining systems that characterise mass-production today”.

Perhaps if the label had been written more recently it would have referenced 3D printing instead of CNC.

To me, it’s not clear the lathe warrants a place in the gallery on this basis. While superficially similar to a CNC lathe in terms of it’s ability to automatically produce a complex form, the two things are in fact profoundly different.

The authors of this description have not appreciated that the Ames Gunstock Lathe has no numerical or computational aspects at all.

The machine is so fascinating exactly because it operates without any level of abstraction. It takes as input one gunstock and makes another with no representational intermediate. In this sense it’s the absolute antithesis of the “information age” in which now live, as defined by the rise of abstract representation.

In fact the lineage that leads to modern computer technology and CNC tools was already well established by 1857. The Jacquard loom used holes punched in cards to control the patterns which it wove into fabrics, a genuine information technology. The link between the Jacquard loom and modern computing is unambiguous. The system of using holes in cards as an encoding method was prevalent in computing right up until the 1960s. Much of the standardisation of punch cards was undertaken by IBM, very much a link to the contemporary.

So the Ames Lathe, which was built 50 years later than the first Jacquard looms, doesn’t feature in the genealogy of CNC machines after all.

Disinheriting the Ames Lathe is more than just an exercise in taxonomy. Comparing the Jacquard loom to the lathe is a case study which can shed light on the defining characteristics of information technology.

Claude Shannon published A Mathematical Theory of Communication in 1948, giving an account of how measure information that is widely accepted. However what information actually is and how it is deployed in technology is less clear.

The Ames lathe is a vivid illustration of the contrast between highly malleable and liquid data which powers the modern world, and the non-representational physical object which has been so much less fertile in terms of innovation.

As far as I can think, the only functional modern device that users an analogous mechanism to the Ames Lathe is the machine used for copying keys at high street shops. Meanwhile, the informational approach of the Jacquard loom was already exhibiting the advantages that make information based manufacturing so powerful.

For example, the cards that controlled the Jacquard loom could be converted into electrical signals, sent over telegraph nearly instantaneously and recreated at some distant location. Conversely, by requiring a physical full scale wooden representation of a gunstock, the Ames lathe can only transmit a design at the same speed as any other medium-sized physical object.

Punch cards can be reordered to produce new patterns in woven cloth with very little effort, while for Ames lathe to produce a new design a whole new template must be hand made.

This ease of manipulation and transmission are the key features of information technology.

For me the inclusion of this lathe says more about the making of the modern world than many of the exhibits in the gallery that genuinely embody computer technology. By illustrating a technological cul-de-sac it throws into sharper contrast the path that progress has actually taken.

Balint Bolygo mechanical sculpture

Device using similar mechanism made by artist Balint Bolygo. In this image it is copying a cast of his head onto paper.

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