A friend of mine made an interesting remark the other day. Here’s how he arrived at it. We were mourning the passing of old technology like the cassette, 8-track cartridge, VHS videotapes and of course, vinyl records. The real issue, we surmised, with the march of time is that we are all left with the data media, records, tapes and so on, but not the equipment to play them on. As cassette players and record decks become a rarity we are left with a load of un-retrievable data. It was at this point that my friend propounded his theory; that of all the media formats, vinyl would be the one worth holding on to as it would be possible for many people, with a rudimentary understanding of physics to build a machine to play them.
Let me expand this a bit. The vinyl or indeed, shellac, disc was invented during an age when everything was the product of mechanical engineering, electricity barely having been discovered. As a consequence, the physical record carried an analogue groove which was read by a mechanical contraption, a needle on an arm, and the vibration thereby generated, amplified by physical, not electronic means. Even today it should be possible to build a rudimentary machine that tracked the record groove and fed the vibrations produced to a large horn much in the same way that the first record players did. So even if the apocalypse comes, owners of vinyl records may well be able to play them again after a bit of mechanical fiddling with components that could be made or cannibalised.
Those still owning a stack of tape formats such as cassettes, cartridges or CDs would not be so lucky as these are a product of the electronic age and would require a knowledge of electrical engineering and the correct materials to build circuits.
The idea that the age of mechanics has now become the age of electronics was brought home to me when I tried to buy a Meccano set for my son’s birthday. These days it is manufactured by a French company and is not generally available in the same way that say, Lego, is. Lego has filled the void left by other construction toys in a big way but it has a flaw. I read a recent review of today’s Meccano written by a Civil Engineer and he made a pertinent point. His view is that Lego allows you to build today’s structures in an unreal way but Meccano allows you to build the same structures in a real way. In other words Lego does not use real engineering principles and thus teaches you nothing.
It seems that in the age of electronics, no one is really interested in teaching youngsters how to build mechanical objects as the knowledge is redundant. Perhaps building a record player may well be beyond today’s generation after all?