The Way Things Work

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Large, colorful drawings of the inner parts of machines predominate in THE WAY THINGS WORK, accompanied by appropriate explanations and captivating cartoons. Divided into four sections to cover movement, the elements, light and sound waves, and electricity and automation, everything from the simplest to the most complex mechanical process is presented in understandable form.

Macaulay’s humor and genius combine in his repeated use of the great wooly mammoth to illustrate mechanical principles through analogy, such as how to weigh the mammoth (leverage), transport it (floating and flying), shoe it (magnetism), and exploit it for its heat (radiation) and its memory (computers).

Macaulay begins his tale with the capture of this wondrous beast. When he entered the land of the mammoth, he recounts, he saw many high wooden towers designed for mammoth capture. The unsuspecting animal would be lured to the base of the tower, where a boulder would be dropped on its head to stun it; then it could be led to captivity, where an ice pack and fresh swamp grass would soothe its hurt feelings. The system had two major drawbacks: It was hard to hoist a large boulder up the tower, and the dizzy mammoth often crashed into the tower and destroyed it. The author calculated that the problem could be solved by constructing earthen ramps to replace the towers. Rolling a boulder up a slight incline is easier than direct lifting, and the mammoth’s falling against the ramp would have little effect. A scientific explanation of the inclined plane and the wedge follows the story. Similar situations occur throughout the book, with the mammoth contributing to the descriptions.

Hundreds of machines are explained, including can openers, parking meters, toasters, helicopters, and breath testers. Objects not usually thought of as machines, such as a computer’s mouse and the binary code, also come under consideration. A glossary of technical terms and an index are included.