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Machines with Soul

This post is directly inspired by a book I just finished, ‘I Know You Got Soul’ by Jeremy Clarkson of ‘Top Gear’ fame. In it, Mr Clarkson discusses twenty-one machines which have ‘soul’ – because they “possess that most human of qualities, a flaw” or “because they were born carrying the genetic fingerprint of a foolish and misguided inventor” and have “formed the backbone of some incredible stories”.

You might be interested to see the machines that Mr Clarkson picked, in which case, read on below the cut. I hope you might also be interested in some machines that I think have soul.

First, Jeremy Clarkson's picks:

  • Concorde

  • Rolls-Royce Phantom

  • Riva Aquarama (This is a handmade Italian speedboat from the 1960s. I have to agree with Jeremy that it is achingly beautiful and utterly cool. Go and do a Google Image search now.)

  • The Millennium Falcon

  • Flying boats, especially the Sunderland

  • The SS Great Britain

  • Arthur, the world's first open satellite dish, at Goonhilly in Cornwall (named after both King Arthur and Arthur C. Clarke)

  • The Boeing 747

  • The AK47

  • The Zeppelin

  • The Flying Scotsman

  • The Boeing B-52

  • The Hoover Dam

  • The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier

  • The Alfa Romeo 166

  • The SR-71 Blackbird

  • Submarines

  • The Space Shuttle

  • The Ford GT40

  • The Yamato

  • The Supermarine Spitfire

I can't argue with any of those having read his logic. But as I was reading the book, I ended up thinking of other machines that I would like to add. Machines that seemed to have 'soul'. It occurred to me that maybe even some of you would like to make your own suggestions - in which case, please comment below. However, I think we should stick to some rules:

  1. You may have no more than one fictional machine. Clarkson had the Millennium Falcon.

  2. Even though Clarkson had several examples of the same type of machine - e.g. two airliners, three cars - I'm going to be stricter. For any type of machine you may have no more than one civilian example and no more than one military example (so you could have one jet fighter and one airliner for example).

  3. To count as a 'machine', the object must be man-made and feature either mechanical moving parts or electronics.

  4. You should provide at least some rationale to support your choice. Remember that this isn't about the "most important" or the "best" machines, it's about the ones with 'soul'.

Here are mine:

Conway Stewart Silver Duro
I've lived near Plymouth for the last thirteen years. In that time, I don't think I've met a single local who has heard of Conway Stewart. I've known people from Plymouth who have gone out and bought a mass-produced Montblanc fountain pen thinking that it represented the height of luxury. (Nothing against Montblanc, but they make their entry level pens in vast numbers. They have no soul.) Yet, in Plymouth itself, making handmade writing instruments of the highest quality is Conway Stewart. I'm very proud to say that I own one - a Silver Duro. It's a red and black acrylic finish over a solid sterling silver barrel. It looks gorgeous and (assuming you don't mind the very heavy weight) is wonderful to write with. They also sell a range of inks named after local landmarks. Mine is currently filled with Edgcumbe lavender.

Having something handmade for you really helps with this 'soul' thing. I bought mine after I rang them up and asked if I could come to the workshop to try out a few different pens and nibs. It was an extravagant, luxury purchase that I have not regretted. Something else that helps with the 'soul' thing is history. Churchill used Conway Stewarts throughout the war. Good enough history for you?

Subaru Impreza Turbo (mk 1)
OK, this might be a controversial one. The Impreza mk 1 was a very ugly car, even by the standards of the early 1990s, yet... With the two litre turbocharged engine, it was fast. Really fast. We had the five door estate version, which was even uglier (especially with gold wheels), but ours (the car in my userpic) had been modded by Prodrive, the company that ran Subaru's rally team. So ours was really, really fast. And with the intelligent four wheel drive system it had, it had phenomenal road-holding capabilities. There can't have been many safer cars on the road. I can vouch for this from personal experience. I once had a tyre blow out on me on the M4. Completely exploded. The car was on three wheels. I only noticed this when the lorry driver behind me started flashing me madly.

OK, so safety in a car has very little to do with 'soul'. But being able to drive confidently at speed around wet country roads is immensely fun. And the Impreza meant that more people could enjoy that experience than ever before. Basically, the Impreza is so good that the driver doesn't have to be. "Anyone can be a hero in an Impreza Turbo." My current car is a Porsche 911. On paper, it's slightly faster than our Prodrive Impreza was. But if I had to get from A to B as fast as possible avoiding motorways and A roads in wet conditions, I'd definitely take an Impreza.

Not everyone knows what an Impreza Turbo can do, especially one that looks like a family estate. I was once cruising along the motorway in the outside lane, overtaking slower moving traffic at a reasonable pace. Not reasonable enough for a middle aged bloke in a big Merc, who tailgated me (close enough that I could see his wife telling him off). Now I could have moved over, but that's no way to behave in a Scooby (rhyming slang: Scooby Doo - Subaru). I dropped down a gear and floored it. The Merc was left for dust. Then I moved over to the middle lane and slowed to my original speed. The Merc came past, its driver staring resolutely straight ahead and not looking at me. His wife gave me a thumbs up though.


Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k*
The Commodore 64 was made by a big American corporation. It had no soul. The Dragon 32 was a bit crap. It had no soul. The BBC Micro was bought "because it will be educational" for the sort of kids who weren't allowed to watch ITV. It definitely had no soul. The Spectrum on the other hand was what the cool kids had. It had the best games (or at least it had more games than any of the others, and it had more of the really clever groundbreaking games than the other computers). And it was designed by an actual mad inventor who wore glasses, was bald and had a ginger beard. Sir Clive Sinclair had soul and this was his finest moment.

* The 16k model couldn't play most of those games and was therefore a bit crap and only for skivs. Not cool, and no soul.


Pioneer Kuro Plasma Screen
Consumer electrical devices get better every year. Computers are better than they were last year. Fridge-freezers are better than they were last year. Washing machines are better than they were last year. The Pioneer Kuro is the exceptional to this rule. It was introduced in 2008. In 2010, Pioneer pulled out of the market because they couldn't compete with mainstream televisions. The Kuro was simply the best television when it was released. It was the best television you could buy when Pioneer stopped making them. And according to AV professionals and enthusiasts, three years after production ended, the Kuro has never been bettered.

That's sad. Technology should advance. We have a 50" Kuro. It's f***ing awesome. I've seen friends who have bought more modern screens including moderately expensive ones, and they don't come close. Plasma screens don't last for ever, even Pioneer ones. I hope when ours dies that something better has come along to replace it. Jeremy Clarkson's selections of Concorde and the Space Shuttle were partly because they've gone and they haven't been replaced by anything more advanced. I feel the same way about the Kuro.


Voyager 1 and 2
Most people think that mankind's greatest achievement in space exploration is the Apollo Moon landings. Bollocks it is. Apollo was nothing compared to the Voyager programme. Comparing the distances involved and the discoveries made, if getting to the Moon was the equivalent of riding a bicycle from your home to the next town twenty miles away, buying something very mundane, taking some photographs of a carpet warehouse and coming back again, then Voyager was the equivalent of flying a radio-controlled plane from London to New York making sure to pass very close to three small rowing boats in the middle of the Atlantic (taking the first close photographs of all of them and the rubbish the rowers had thrown over the side) and then after reaching New York keeping going long enough to fly twenty times around the Earth and still be going.

That is so mind-boggling, that it has to have soul. And that's before you even consider all the fantastic images of distant worlds that we wouldn't have without the Voyagers.


The Liberator
Jeremy's having the Millennium Falcon, and I can see where he's coming from, but I'm going to go for The Liberator from Blake's 7. Cool alien shape. Cool computer. Cool handguns (that looked just a little like my mum's curling tongs when I was little). And somehow as a setting, Blake's 7 has more soul than any other SF film or TV series. It's serious and grown up, but still manages to be funny. Only Firefly has come close so consistently.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2014 05:53 pm (UTC)
I like your choices for the space vehicles and computer.
I'm not much of a car fan and so can't really comment on those. But, one device I would think should be considered is this. Despite over 2.8 million having been made between 1898 and 1920 there don't seem to be many left now, few of which are in original condition, perhaps because they saw a lot of hard service. The design of cartridge is a bit odd, and caused problems for the designers of later weapons without the tubular magazine, but it was the first service rifle to use smokeless powder so perhaps the designers may be excused their choice.
Mine (well, the only properly working one of the two I currently have) was made in 1898 and was fitted with a new butt a couple of months before the German invasion of 1940.
Jan. 2nd, 2014 10:05 pm (UTC)
Looks like a justifiable choice...
Jan. 17th, 2014 09:18 am (UTC)
I like your argument for the Voyagers particularly.
Mar. 20th, 2015 05:59 pm (UTC)
Hah - my current vehicle is a Subaru Impreza Outback Sport (ah...heated seats). The transmission is rather clunky and I wish I had an inch or two more leg room, but aside from that it's been a great car.

And one of my other most valued possessions is a Namiki Falcon fountain pen with a "soft fine" tip. Not amazing to look at, but gives me the most expressive writing experience - it actually adds the third dimension to my writing (by increasing the pressure I can triple the thickness of the line).

Finally, I think this list needs at least one building or house. After all, according to some architects, a home is a "machine for living". As a compromise, maybe include the Big Ben's clock - that's a machine, certainly.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )