Better Living Through Cumulative Engineering

Got these excruciating posts on Deep Topics(tm) that I’m bogging on because  I have a cold and the concomitant even-more-than-usual muddled head. (all together now: “poor baby!”). So: lighter observations:

Lee Iacocca tells the story in his autobiography(1) of his first day at work for Ford.  After getting an engineering degree and a MBA from Harvard, he’s assigned to work on improving the design of a spring. He spent his first day studying a spring used someplace in some Ford vehicle or other, then marched off to request transfer into sales.

What’s striking me today about this story: it is very probable many men spent many hours working on that spring over the years. There were no doubt a set of specs for that spring, such as how big it could be, how long it had to last, how strong and resilient in needed to be to do its job. That was probably a pretty darn good spring. Ford then assigns a highly intelligent, highly trained young man to look at it again.

A generic toilet seat, for illustrative purposes only. Not exactly the model I used.  Like you care.

This story was brought to mind because I, rising from my sickbed (that’s your cue to cry me a river), replaced a toilet seat Tuesday in the front downstairs bathroom. The crummy plastic one that came with the toilets 15 years ago broke a hinge, so I got a slightly less crummy one with metal hinges and a sturdier-looking lid and seat to replace it.

What’s of note here, apart from my manly competence (I even had to use a screwdriver!) is that a crummy plastic toilet seat lasted 15 years in the most-used bathroom in a house of 6-7 people. Not bad, really. Further, the replacement seat used some pretty fancy engineering for the attachment to the bowl. I was impressed.

The spec for toilet seat fasteners includes some fairly stringent requirements, due to the, shall we say, environment in which they are to be deployed. First, they can’t rust. The top of a toilet bowl tends to be a damp, corrosive place. Second, since the bowl is porcelain, the fasteners must hold tight but not too tight, or they will crack the bowl. Third, they must be cheap. Nobody is going NASA-level on toilet seat fasteners.

The traditional approach, at least in my very small experience, is to use brass screws (don’t corrode like steel) and rubber or plastic gaskets and nuts, which will not permit overtightening. The nuts will break first. The nuts are winged, so that, when tightened from above, the wings will contact the underside of the bowl enough not to turn – handy.

And it works – OK. The cheap, 15 year old seat fasteners require regular tightening. This need was evidently anticipated by the engineers, who put slotted bolt heads under little plastic flaps at the back of the seat, so that they can be easily retightened using a screwdriver or a dime (my preferred method, although I’m compelled to wash the dime before putting it back in my pocket).

This new seat, which I’m guessing is heavy duty hardboard with a thick plastic coating, came with something else: stainless steel threaded rods, a force-fitted plastic collar for the top and a long plastic ‘nut’ with an hexagonal cross-section for the bottom. The rods screwed into the hinges and the collars made sure the rods didn’t make contact with the bowl. I’m thinking the engineers thought this separation would reduce the risk of both cracking the bowl and corroding the rod.

The nuts, which are a bit like short straws only threaded in the middle, could only be tightened from below. Too early to tell if this was part of the plan assuming the engineers had solved the loosening over time issues, or just valuing aesthetics over ease. The engineering coolness: the nuts have an hexagonal nub on the end that, according to the instructions, is supposed to break off once you’ve gotten the nuts to the proper tightness, solving the overtightening issue. (A determined monkey could grab the remainder of the nut and keep turning, but that would be stupid.)

This tech might be 100 years old, for all I know. That’s not the point. Somebody still had to notice it, and apply it to something as utterly mundane and as lacking in glamour as toilet seats.

The point of all this: we live in a time and place where real engineers spend real time on issues as utterly trivial as springs in cars and fasteners on toilet seats, and have done so now for generations. There are hardly any aspects of our physical lives that have not been touched and improved by some unknown engineers somewhere improving this or that gadget or tool. Our cars are safer, last longer and are easier and more fun to drive. Our utilities just work. The lines painted on our roads last longer and reflect the light. We guys can get a good shave without committing facial seppuku even when half-asleep. And so on.  All these little changes have made life easier and more pleasant, overall.

While we are perhaps more aware of stupid innovations that fail to make life easier (*cough* Microsoft *cough*), it would be good to also notice all the little improvements that are so easy to miss because they Just Work. Science gets all the attention, and it is indispensable. But without all the endless mundane engineering, science would just be pie in the sky dreaming.

So, cool, and thanks to the unknown army of engineers. The toilet seat failure reminds me, however, that I now have to face replacing pretty much all the appliances we bought 15 years ago, as they march right past their use by dates and start falling apart. Guessing 10 years was probably the engineering target. There’s a dark side to almost everything.

(Would also mention that this cumulative engineering is the sort of thing a free market does well and a managed market very poorly or not at all, but this is a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o!)

  1. Yes, I’ve read Iacocca’s autobiography. Hey, I was young and foolish and stuck some place that had a copy of it on the shelf. I probably am not remembering it right. So sue me.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

7 thoughts on “Better Living Through Cumulative Engineering”

  1. I’m a scientist. It is a little embarrassing to hear people laud the fruits of modern science when they’re really talking about modern engineering. A lot of electronics would be nowhere without the understanding of the quantum mechanics behind it, but once you’ve got that, it is engineering work all the rest of the way.

    1. Yep. Very grateful to scientists for what you folks do – but you gotta have engineers to make that stuff useful. My current fav: how you need to make allowances for relativistic effects for GPS to work. Lots and lots of very geeky engineering involved in GPS, but you need the hard science to get it all to work.

      I’ve sometimes wondered: if no more basic science was done, how long, if ever, before the engineers ran out of things to improve? Looking just at material science, seems like the surface has hardly been scratched (accidental pun!). Not saying in any way that basic research should stop, but rather pondering how much stuff we’ve already figured out is still waiting to be applied somewhere. Also, it seems historically, it’s in trying to apply basic science that a huge number of other ideas and technology (and more basic science!) is created.

      1. Really, it’s sort of amazing how often a thing seems to be about to be perfected.. just as something in its own infancy matures just enough to be able to replace it, despite shortcomings – it’s just that much better already. There’s a long way to “perfect” — and then finding that the “perfect” can be even better.

  2. I recently replaced a toilet seat that sounds similar to the new one you described. While it may seem a marvel of engineering now, years from now when you need to remove it and install a new one, you will wonder why it must be loosened from the bottom, instead of the much simpler method of unscrewing it from the top.

    1. By then, I’ll unwrap the new nanobot-enabled iSeat(tm) and simply place it on top of the broken seat and marvel as it disassembles the old seat and assembles the new in place, and puts the leftover grey goo in the Raw Materials bucket.

      Then I’ll strap on my jetpack and fly to the Eternity Center to have my brain uploaded to the Orbital Spindle.


  3. No stainless steel holding on my toilet seat covers. Nylon bolts (with huge, quarter-sized slots) and nylon nuts underneath.

    Didn’t read Iacocca’s autobiography, but I did read Eddie Rickenbacker’s, who seems to have been less reluctant to do drudge work. When he got to be a vice-president, did Iacocca remember how demeaning it is to dump grunt work on the newcomers? I’m guessing not.

    1. The book, if I’m recalling correctly, was a paean to his brilliance and humility. The little people don’t figure into it much.

      Only time will tell if these newfangled (to me, at least) fasteners will hold up or not. It’s still a cheap toilet seat, just not the cheapest.

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