This is an exclusive extract from “Mind is the Ride”, a Boneshaker book project by Jet McDonald. The book is currently crowdfunding with Unbound, and Boneshaker readers can get an advance copy of the book for the discounted price of £15 for a hardback, or £5 for an ebook. Just enter the code “boneshaker” at the checkout.
The Bell I have in my hand is made of shiny stainless steel, it has “TAIWAN” stamped on the base and has a crown with a cross embossed on the top. It is the Bell that took me to India. If you unscrew the dome you find a saw-shaped bar attached to a thumb lever. The saw rotates a cog at the centre which in turn rotates a flywheel with washers at the circumference. Horizontal thumb lever energy is transmitted into the rotational energy of the flywheel. For each thumb push in one direction you get a free thumb pull as the spring releases and the flywheel spins back. Slow movements on the outside create Katherine wheels on the inside and the Crown rejoices. All for £2.99 from the Far East. And so the colonial mixer begins.
My mother’s great great great grandfather was an English magistrate sent to oversee the abolition of Slavery in Jamaica. Three hundred years later, in 1968 my mother left the family home in the West Indies to come to the UK. My father was the grandson of an Anglo Indian man who fled India when the Raj collapsed. I’m part libertarian magistrate, part Indian indentured slave and part heir to Lord Reading, the man who put Ghandi in jail.
The first pinger, in fact the first dinger linger, was a cow bell. A mechanical striker on the front Wheel of a penny farthing hit a bell that dangled beneath the Handlebars with each revolution.
This was shrunk into its own independent wheel and fitted onto the Handlebars. By the time of the Lucas Bell of 1895 you could press a saw-shaped lever on a pivot which rolled against a cog so that both the lid of the Bell and a striking arm were rotated at high speed. The striking arm was pushed aside by a pimple on the base so it sprang back and struck the rotating dome on top. The brand leader was the “King of the Road” which had two bells, one rotating dome on top and another fixed below.
By 1902 Joseph Lucas had moved into car and aeroplane components and by the 1950s the company were making semiconductors, rectifiers and transistors. By 1996 Lucas Aeronautics had been part sold to the company which made the Tyres for the NASA space shuttle. I like to think that, not despite, but because of, this free market evolution, the “King of the Road” bell made it into space. That somewhere in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle there was a double domed brass apple. And as its crew fled the orbit of the earth, as they stormed free of Newtonian physics, as they embraced the uncertainty of relativity, someone somewhere pressed a little thumb lever and far from Houston a cow bell heralded the infinite everywhere.
Up until medieval times man, and mainly woman, used their bodies like mules. They dug and they lifted and they churned. But muscles develop maximum power when they move quickly against a small resistance. Muscles need Gears. And medieval man staring up at the towers of enlightenment and a pile of oak beams beside him rationalised the single geared capstan into existence so that quick easy movements could be used to move slow heavy loads. Gears upon gears evolved and the Bike Bell, signaling as it did the arrival of the bike, is but a manifestation of that first capstan. Bike Bells are the single celled cogs of the industrial evolution. But, if you take the top off, they are also the fossilised remains of the tyranny of time.
When Archimedes was sitting in his bath tub in the third century BC not only was he thinking how much water his thighs displaced. He was also thinking Gears. Within and without the brain. His mechanical Gears were used to create mini planetariums, a millennia before the medieval capstan and the astronomical clocks of the Renaissance.
Now I’m not saying the bike bell is a planetarium but with the eye of a microtourist you can see its heritage. With the top dome off and the press of a lever two planetary washers revolve soundlessly around a cogged centre. As such it is a simple answer to the question posed by Plato two centuries before.
“By the assumption of what uniform and ordered motions can the apparent motions of the planets be accounted for?”
Archimedes solution was a machine in which the sun and moon revolved around a geocentric earth ie with the earth as centre of the universe. This can be seen in the “Ankytheria mechanism”, a hunk of coral with metal chunks, raised from a shipwreck in 1900 but dating from 150 B.C. It had more than thirty gears and could calculate the positions of all the main planets and calendar events with a turn of a lever. It was the first analogue computer. But the main fragment of it, mollified in a case of coral, looks like the single geared remnants of the inside of my Bike Bell. My cow brain.
It is worth reflecting here on the links between Greek science and philosophy. For the ancient polymaths there was no separation. When Aristotle, inheritor of Plato’s tradition, listed out the sciences on the back of an envelope, matters concerning the fundamental basis of human existence were dealt with alongside his material on physics, hence “metaphysics”. Metaphysics, the systematic quest for the nature of the heavens, for the grit of reality, lay not separate from physics but alongside it. But paradoxically it was these first geared models of the universe that led to the separation of philosophy and science, the division of thought and deed. Each turn of the gear created scientific insight but metaphysical separation.
After the breakup of the Roman empire, the highly developed elements of Greek technology were mostly lost to Western Scholars and instead went East to Islam and India where they thrived. It was only in twelfth and thirteenth centuries that this learning came back to Europe through the Moorish advances into Southern Spain. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries mechanical astrolabes and planetariums were being made in earnest but only as carcasses of the philosophical learning and traditions of Ancient Greece that were once part of their mystery.
By the middle ages these astrological clocks were beholden to a Christian God. They were earthly manifestations of the heavenly machine that the Lord had created. Pendulums automated them so they could act devoid of man, perfect illustrations of Gods perfection. They were microcosms of the universe but also precursors of the spring-loaded timepieces that would eventually shuffle the working classes in and out of the factories of Industrial Revolution and go on to mark Greenwich Mean Time and the British Empires claim on the present moment. The revolution of the sun and moon around a central cog was further subdivided into minutes and hours, a multitude of gear ratios away from the movements of the cosmos they were modelled on.
The word Clock is ultimately derived from the Celtic word “cloche” meaning bell. Bells were the voice of ancient communities, the chime of peace and war, fair and festival, famine and epidemic, birth and death, the newborn chime of the emerging body politic. But locked into the gears of the astrological clocks of the middle ages, subsumed into the Anglicised “Clock”, they assumed the mundaneness of religious bell hops and factory turnpikes. The seasons by which the Greeks and ancient man marked their days were hammered into the brass plate revolutions of the planets and then cleaved into minutes and hours.
Sir Isaac Newton loved them. William Blake, poet and visionary of the 17th century, hated them, their cold ascetic gears the “dark satanic mills” of his prophetic verse. For Blake Newtonian physics represented sight without insight. It looked without to the cold tick of the universe but never within to the richness of human imagination.
The bike bell, the unholy cowbell, is poetry in free verse, a chime without a clock, a poet calling from the slavishness of the working week, half-dressed in the disguise of puritanical gears, stumbling sideways into the verge of the seasons.
Before Plato, before Archimedes, there was Hesiod. In Hesiod’s time the seasons of the planet marked the slow beat of existence and his epic verse the “Works” was a seasonal calendar, a poem anti-clock. It used the folk lore of seasonal and star change to reap and sow the fields and was sung, like the Iliad, with a lyre.
“But when House -on-Back, the snail crawls from the ground up
the plants, escaping the Pleiades, it’s no longer
time for vine digging;
time rather to put an edge to your sickles,
and rout out your helpers.”
His shorter song “Days” was more silvery, more bell like, a ritualistic calendar based around a thirty day lunar cycle, in which different days and associated moon phases meant different rituals eg “bring bride home” or “open wine jar”. This reflected a more ancient calendar in which the moon exerted an animate effect on man’s behaviour.
In the twenty first century we divide our days into the quartz crystal oscillations of computer time. A quartz clock is devoid of metaphor, containing only ticks and tocks, time increments that service the ghost of a churchly timetable to mortal judgement and entirely devoid of the poetry that marks the richness of human interaction with the natural world.
In the land of the cowbell, Hindus and Buddhists have spent millennia proposing death is not the end of the line but a gateway to the next cycle of birth and death. Time is cyclical and there are repeating ages. The gods echo a cycle of death and rebirth that itself echoes the cyclical change of the seasons. Indian philosophy is embedded in cosmology and a sense that what you understand, your insight into your existence, can influence how you live. Greek philosophy once had similar strong ties to both the planetary gods and the homespun business of living. But somewhere along the way Western philosophy lost a sense of purpose, of metaphorical reach or direct influence on our lives. It was hived into academia for bods with beards. Mechanics ticked into the clock and philosophy into term time.
I look at my Bell now with the lid off. I press the lever and the flywheel revolves its washers, its sun and moon, I release the lever and it spins back again. I put the lid back on and this advance and return is made plentiful through sound. It is a childish fantasy that the sun and moon revolve around the earth. But I like this childish time. This plodding, pre Galileo, pre Newton time. This time of the cow bell.
You can find out more and pledge at unbound.co.uk/books/mind-is-the-ride. Boneshaker readers can get an advance copy of the book for the discounted price of £15 for a hardback, or £5 for an ebook. Just enter the code “boneshaker” at the checkout. Other pledges include a ride with Jet and the Boneshaker team through Gospel Pass, the highest mountain pass in Wales, and even a handmade frame by award winning maker Robin Mather.