It’s been nearly 30 years since Caldecott Medalist David Macaulay was first asked if he’d be interested in illustrating a reference encyclopedia about physics in action – the science behind everything from the lever to the latest in satellite technology. Initially, he wasn’t. But he figured out a way to make it fun for himself – enter the woolly mammoth – and the result was a game-changing compendium that explained scientific principles to non-scientists. He spoke with PW about The Way Things Work Now, a new edition of his now-classic work.
Is anybody besides me surprised that you are not an inventor?
I think I’m better at figuring out things that already exist. Maybe I’m too lazy to invent things.
I’m not buying lazy. How about tinkering? When the handyman shows up to fix something around your house, are you able to resist watching him work, or offering your opinion about what’s gone wrong?
I’m OK with that. I can fix things most things around the house. I think what this goes back to is, when I was a kid, I always had to be working on models of things. Things you would make out of cardboard and that packing tape you had to lick that tasted terrible. Meccano sets of railway lines with signal arms that went up and down, which were like the Erector sets of England. [Macaulay emigrated to the U.S. when he was 11.] I was always desperate for my father to get home to help me because I didn’t have the patience to do all the work myself. What I was most interested in was the exploration process of making models, seeing how everything fit together. I guess in a way it’s really the same thing I do now. And I’m no good at inventions because I’m not good at the future. I don’t even write books about the future, except maybe Motel of the Mysteries (Houghton Mifflin, 1979), and look how that turned out. I don’t have a science fiction mind and things change so quickly, why bother? I’m going to be wrong anyway.
This is the third edition of The Way Things Work (1988). Which section needed the least revision? I imagine not much has changed about levers or the inclined plane.
Well, every section needed revision because we added color. There was a paperback version of The New Way Things Work (2004) that was produced in the U.K. only, [in] which DK tried to colorize the original art, but I was never happy with it. So this third [hardcover] edition gave me a chance to do it myself and to give the illustrations a look that was consistent throughout the book. But it was a lot of work because we had to digitally remove the sepia-toned art and the danger in doing that is that you wipe out some of the black lines. Many of these drawings are really complicated and wiping out the black lines could actually make the illustrations incorrect, so I had to go through it very carefully, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
I imagine those black lines are really important in the chapter titled “The Digital Domain.” Did that section require a lot of updating?
We had to consider all these new devices like the iPod, smart phones, the flat screen TV, digital cameras. And there was old stuff we took out to make room, like videocassette recorders. Gone.
But you kept the record player. Vinyl is back!
Isn’t that funny? The record player is interesting because the mechanical side of it is very accessible. You can break it down and understand its parts. Whereas when you look at an iPod, open it up, or open up the Apple TV block, and I don’t know what I’m looking at.
I don’t even know what an Apple TV block is.
It’s the device you plug into your TV to access Apple TV. We had one that was, shall I say, no longer performing, and I couldn’t help myself. I opened it up and it is just amazing, the size of the chips inside it. You need a magnifying glass just to look at them. With electronics, it’s all about the pathways you can open and close, and the 1s and 0s you need to transmit data or an image. It’s staggering and it’s changing so fast. So mostly the things we deleted [from the second edition, The New Way Things Were, 1998] were not the fundamental concepts but things from those intermediate stages. Magnetic tape, remember that? Gone. USBs and flash drives took its place. The challenge was to choose the best examples of how technology is evolving. It’s 400 pages of machines but what pulls it all together is connecting the principles behind all this stuff.
What was left on the cutting room floor for the next edition? Did you consider the self-driving car?
It’s too soon for that and, who knows? I’m not really interested in getting a car that no one is driving. Isn’t that why we have buses and trains and planes? However, the principle behind the hybrid car interested me: putting on your brakes and generating energy for use later? That’s appealing and it has a social implication.
And we almost forgot the hybrid car. I was at a soccer game talking to another parent about the book and he said, ‘So you had to add the hybrid car, of course.’ I’m sure the blood drained from my face because I hadn’t included it so I contacted the team in London [DK publishes the U.K. edition] and said, ‘What about the hybrid car?,’ pretending to be really smart as if I was the one who had thought of this, and they were all in agreement, ‘Yes, yes, we must include the hybrid car!’
One of the entries in “The Digital Domain” chapter explains how the e-reader works. Will there ever be a digital edition of The Way Things Work?
I hope not. All the information in this book is already available online, so why create another straight digital transfer? Back when we put books on CD-ROMs we would bring in animation and sound and kids loved that because it made the book come alive, and as an illustrator, the prospect of animation is interesting because trying to create movement through illustration is hard. You can only do so much. But I don’t anticipate that happening with this 400-page book, and a straight transfer makes the pages harder to read and makes the illustrations smaller. I think it also completely changes the experience of reading the book. Even though it’s 400 pages, you’re reassured by the fact that it will end. You can get everything you need from this book. That’s how I felt about The Golden Book of Science for Boys and Girls, which I read as a boy. I look at it now and can remember the sensation of reading it as a kid. It was like giving me the keys to the kingdom.
Do you imagine your own audience is mostly young boys and girls?
A lot of it is. The whole aim of the book is to keep the information relevant for people who are coming at this for the very first time. This is not and never has been a book for experts although I’m always pleased by the reaction experts have. They’re usually thrilled that someone is paying attention to what they do other than their close friends. It’s a lonely life and they really appreciate that someone is trying to shine on light on what scientists and inventors do.
Speaking of lonely, I almost shed a tear for the mammoth who is, himself, alone at the end of the book.
The mammoth will be okay so long as he has swamp grass.
I have always wondered: how did the woolly mammoth work his way into a book on physics?
The mammoth was my idea and it was a totally selfish decision to include him but ultimately I was encouraged by the people at DK. The book itself was originally [collaborator] Neil Ardley’s idea – and he never gets enough credit. He wanted to create a book that would link machines by the scientific principles behind them. He had pages and pages of these machines divided into categories before I ever got involved. I was put off by the notion of the sheer size of the book he had in mind. I couldn’t imagine keeping my sanity illustrating 400 pages of machines so I was determined to make it as much fun for myself as I could, and what happened is that, with the addition of the woolly mammoth, I wound up making it fun for kids, too. We all learned from that. If you really want to teach somebody something, put a smile on their face first. You don’t want a young reader, or a reluctant reader, or a reader who’s nervous about technology, to open your book with their teeth gritted together. They won’t get past the first paragraph. So the mammoth worked for the creator but as it turned out, he worked even better for the reader.
The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay. HMH, $35 Oct. 4 ISBN 978-0-544-82438-6