Saturday, 29 September 2012

A big hand for handiwork

Wouldn’t it be great if we learned to value manual work properly? Especially if that meant being in less awe of the men (and tiny number of women) who draw their seven-figure salaries by getting others to push ten-figure numbers around computer screens. Particularly since manual work doesn’t usually put the whole world economy into a tailspin.

All these thoughts came to me yesterday morning while visiting old friends in Alsace. Regular readers of this blog will remember that this region is in eastern France. I stress the fact because just before I left I had a kind e-mail from a friend wishing me a good break ‘in Germany’. Three moments of extreme unpleasantness in three generations (the second and third better known as the First and Second World Wars) tested whether Alsace was in Germany and established that it wasn’t.

we were visiting a family of Germans who came to live here over sixty years ago. The founder of the dynasty died earlier this year and his son René and son-in-law Tibi have taken over the glassblowing business he set up and lived from for half a century. Tibi embodies what it means to be a modern European: he’s a Hungarian-speaking Romanian, married into a German family living in France. 

He showed me around the workshop.

‘Artistic glassblowing is great, but you can’t live by it,’ he told me, ‘so we build precision glass equipment for chemistry labs.’

Fun to put grapes inside a glass but it doesn't pay the bills

The works are only minutes away from the Swiss city of Basel with its huge pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

‘We blow the end of one short tube of glass into a concave shape, another into a convex one. My job is to grind both ends until they fit together perfectly: the pieces move unhindered against each other but without allowing water or impurities to slip between them.’

The work is slow and painstaking. But it has one huge advantage: no-one has yet come up with a way of automating it.

It also belongs to along tradition of scientific work. My physics teacher at school had done his PhD under no less a figure than Ernest Rutherford, the Nobel laureate.

‘He illustrated a principle of his work to me once,’ my teacher told us, ‘with a story about C. T. R. Wilson.’ Wilson is best known to the general public, if he is known at all, as the inventor of the cloud chamber.

‘Rutherford met him in Birmingham when he was over on a visit from the US, and found him grinding a glass stopper to make a hermetic seal with a bottle.’ Watching Tibi on his grinding machine this morning reminded me of the story. ‘Five years later, Wilson was back in this country and Rutherford saw him in London. And, unbelievably, he was grinding the same bottle stopper.’

The story was told to show how patient scientific work has to be. Now I don’t believe Wilson had really been grinding for five years, but I do believe Tibi when he says that on top form, he can finish 35 pieces of his work, but it can be far fewer. And a batch contains 1000. He grinds them all to an accuracy of a hundredth of a millimetre.

The daily grind: Tibi inspects his work for accuracy
 They all help support research which might ultimately benefit the whole of mankind by increasing the efficiency of processes or delivering new cures for diseases.

They aren’t likely to cause the whole of the world’s financial system to fall apart at the seams.

They are never going to give the skilled artisan working on them a seven-figure bonus.

A useful reminder that we may have some work to do sorting out our sense of priorities.

Part of the latest batch of a thousand

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