Shiftless in Thrissur

One of the local engineering colleges held an exhibition yesterday at the temple round featuring old cars and motorcycles as well as displays of Indian space history. They had also broken down an old Leyland bus into its component parts and the kids -- um, young men, were on hand to explain how each part worked. The cars were nothing fancy to an American but a few caught my eye: a '57 Pontiac w/ right hand drive (not retrofitted); an '87 Mercedes jeep (who knew they made jeeps?) and the one which made the daily paper's headlines: a car made out of wood. Some guy had too much time on his hands, for sure, because he'd stripped some little thing down to the frame and rebuilt it out of wood. Did a damn nice job, I must say, but one wonders what the maintenance is like. Do you take it in for a wash and varnish? Does insurance cover termite damage?

But the high point for me was the 'reverse engineering' competition. You'd pay 50 Rs and have half an hour to reassemble the gearbox to some old manual transmission. The person who finished in the shortest amount of time won a kitty of 1000 Rs. I have never seen the inside of a transmission, but have a pretty good idea how they work thanks to a wonderful book my grandmother gave me when I was a wee lad: The Way Things Work vols I and II (not to be confused with a newer book by the same title)

It was a damn good puzzle and though I didn't finish, given another half hour I bet I'd have made it. I came back again today to try again, but some prattling poobah had taken the stage and so it'd been cancelled. I asked the kids - um, young men, if anyone had succeeded and they said no but told me I'd done very well!

I call them kids when they are really young men, but they are so bright and full of enthusiasm and curiosity they seem like kids. Just a joy to be around. Creative little buggers, too. One kid had come up with an idea for a wheelchair that crawls up stairs and they'd hacked out a prototype. It had a clever expanding cage which sat on the outside rim of each wheel and opened a dozen little legs arranged at a tangent around the circumference. Needs some work, but a good idea nonetheless. They'd also hacked together a battery powered wheelchair. (Hey, this is India - we takes what we can get!)

Another kid had single-handedly rigged a two-stroke engine to an air compressor, complete with a little solenoid to meter the air flow during the cycle. He was proud of it as a "demonstration of concept" to convert compressed air to rotary motion and he gets credit for that but I wasn't alone in pointing out its inefficiency. Apparently he'd taken some ribbing on the subject before and I got some laughs when I suggested he could mount a windmill on top of the car to run the compressor to run the motor…

With guys like that creating our future I'm pretty sure it'll be an exciting place.


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