Man and machine

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Friday, April 11, 2014

WE maybe at an impending paradigm shift in terms of how we harness technology given the evolution in the language of physics. And the mechanical age will be replaced by a melding of chemicals and electronics. Soon, the machine will be replaced by something else – in the place of oil pressure and temp gauges will be soft glowing lights and push button ether dynamics.

Before that time comes, the love affair between man and machine must be written about and documented for posterity. Future-generations must know about the man-machine contraption that is the 20th century automotive vehicle and the romance it spurred between the men who drive them and the machines they tame through steering wheels and gear levers.

The metal steed has enabled us to reach almost all places where tires can roll. And we have built grids of asphalt all over to connect us to one another by way of the modern vehicle. When alien anthropologists finally arrive, it won’t be the Great Wall of China that will catch their interest. It would be the lighted highways and skyways that glitter from space like welcoming beacons. These were built for the kings of the road and the men who drive them.


The internal combustion engine that is so ubiquitous in our streets feels like it has been there all along but it is actually just more than a hundred years-old. Harnessing the technology of controlled explosions, in a precise alchemy of fire and smoke, this assemblage of steel, rubber, and electricity has allowed us to hurl ourselves to reach the limits of two-dimensional time and space.

Yes, that is what actually takes place. We fire up our engines, and we feel the vibrations of the revving machine, ready to lurch with the engagement of the gear. Then we are hurled through the open road in increments of speed.

The first gear signals the torque, the second gear promises potential, and the third lets loose a hundred galloping horses felt through the whole chassis. The hundred mechanical horses driven by fire will finally find their common stride at the fourth and fifth gears. It is a scream first, then a whisper as the song goes, as the machine roars through the asphalt road, whiffs of smoke trailing at its wake .

Over at the driver’s seat, the man at the controls follows the same rhythm of commitment. At first gear, one can still fiddle with the music controls. But from the third to the fifth, all attention is demanded. The hands clasp the steering wheel with a sure grip, the right hand ready to shift gears based on the limits and opportunities of the road. There must be no hesitation lest the stride of the engine is curtailed. No brakes as much as possible, the inertia of the machine must be respected. Take the risk and trust the machine. She will literally pull you through.

And as the vehicle achieves velocity with acceleration, fighting against the forces of gravity and the weight of the vehicle, the man at the helm and the machine achieve a synergy. For a moment, as they struggle through passing a slower vehicle, with on-coming traffic ahead, and then successfully pulling through, they become one.

Such are the daily adventures of man and machine in the open road. I wonder if this visceral almost sexual experience is still possible with over-powered vehicles with diminutive weights of the newer beasts on the road. They are fast and quiet, sure. And they can always outrun older and heavier vehicles like mine. But there is something about the ratio of weight and engine power, gear sizes and timing, that makes driving an exhilarating experience.

I remember a friend who drives a newer fancy electronically-controlled diesel pick-up. He commented that he misses the classic diesel engine of his old ride. It must be the sexy vibrations, and the perceptible, should I say, loud roar of the engines of old, I thought. Driving these old trucks allows you to hear the struggle of the engine. You can ask her, can you give more? She will purr back a difficult yes as the turbo kicks in at 120 kmh. Sometimes, she will say no of course when she is not primed. Newer vehicles just yawn over the challenge with their fancy gizmos and lighter materials.

It may be the case that these vehicles are built too fast, and too much for comfort and these have broken down the synergy between man and machine. Could this be the reason why on the side of the open road many of these shiny new vehicles are seen wasted in catastrophic accidents?

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on April 11, 2014.


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