There’s nothing more interesting to me than watching a movie or TV character do something heroic with ingenuity. A prisoner picks a lock with a paperclip, a bystander performs a tracheotomy with a ballpoint pen, the Professor makes a ham radio set out of coconuts. In extraordinary circumstances, ordinary items are pressed into service and the day is won! Alas, real life is sometimes different. If my shoelace breaks, I don’t have a handy back-up tie. If the cork crumbles in my extraction attempt, I’m likely to shove it into the bottle – OK, fancy twist, I may keep the cork from the bottle neck with a chopstick so I can get the wine out.
I’m reminded of pictures of chimpanzees using a long stalks of sturdy grass to “fish” in a giant termite hill. When the stalk is pulled out slowly, termites are clinging to it just before they are plunged into the chimp’s waiting mouth. This example of animals using tools is considered rare and unusual. We think tool use and language are the slim margin of superiority we have over the beasts. But since I don’t usually have to rely on my wits to eat or find safety, the animals may be gaining.
If the grocery store is out of my favorite tuna, I don’t reach for my fishing pole. On the rare occasion that the power is out, it never occurs to me to chop wood for the fire. Instead, I’m scrambling around in the drawer for the melon baller so that the fruit cup is beautiful. I’m peeling and trimming carrots, adding lemon zest to something, or using the magical microwave to reheat leftovers.
The pinnacle of fictional tool-using is MacGyver. If you need to know how to defuse a bomb, land safely after jumping off a 20 story building, or escape a sealed room, this guy is for you. I think he’s the reason we all wondered if the paint on our 10-speed bikes made them too dangerous to ride. Even bubble gum became a suspect item. I’m surprised the TSA lets us on the airplane with it.
The six classic tools, or simple machines, are the level, the wheel and axle, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. These are all around us today, fundamental parts of things like cars, elevators, and the humble doorstop. Other tools are harder to link to those classic forms. With a computer or cellphone I can determine the optimal path to my destination and even avoid traffic. I can find the answers to crossword puzzles, refresh my memory on the plot of any book, and pull up iconic movie scenes.
So while large scale tools manage to bring me water and heat my house, I can still use tools on a small scale. Screw in a light bulb, squeegee water off of the windows, knit a sweater of yarn. And if called, I’ll keep that bomb from detonating and rig a zip line to take me off the roof to safety.