UK: A HANDY TIP FROM THE SCRAPHEAP. - My father used to claim that you could never know what you might find in the junk shops, the military surplus electronics stores, the breakers' yards and the scrapheaps which he trailed his sons around on Saturday af

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My father used to claim that you could never know what you might find in the junk shops, the military surplus electronics stores, the breakers' yards and the scrapheaps which he trailed his sons around on Saturday afternoons. In fact we knew exactly what we would find - broken-down gramophones, bits of old bakelite phones, millions of dusty thermionic valves, detached mileometers, and the burnt-out motors of primitive vacuum cleaners.

'You never know when it will come in handy,' he would add, as he bought a particularly use-less-looking piece of prehistoric technology - and we silently agreed that we didn't know when it would ever come in handy.

As a result I never thought too highly of the junk-sifting habit until a couple of months ago when I found myself reading an article in the Economist about why the human organism isn't immortal. At the time I didn't have any pressing need to know why it wasn't - but, as I recalled, you never know what you'll find in one of those articles nor when one of the more recent biological theories will come in handy.

Now, as far as I can remember, it was quite a good article, and the biology was undoubtedly up to scratch. But what really struck me was a little anecdote in it about Henry Ford - the well-known inventor of the Model-T Ford, assembly-line mass-production and the six-mile tailback. Apparently old Henry used to send his engineers scouring around the scrapyards of America looking for clapped-out and discarded Model-Ts which they would then dissect in search of any bits that were still in perfect working order.

Any of the bits which had valiantly and conspicuously managed to outlast the rest in the component business were shipped back to Mr Ford in Detroit. Once safely back at HQ they were the subject of an in-depth inquisition as to just how such excessively hard-wearing and pointlessly long-lasting widgets could have escaped the rigours of the Ford production process.

The moral of the tale seemed to be that Mr Ford held 'over-engineering' in a very dim light and that, after discussing the matter with the responsible designer, it was just a case of cleaning up the blood and looking around for ways of making a cheaper widget that would only last as long as the rest of the car that was carrying it.

Now the point I believe the article was making is that the human body has evolved pretty well on Model-T lines (except that we come in a wider colour range) and that's why all your bits start wrinkling, sagging, aching or going grey around the same time - as soon as the warranty period has expired on your 35th birthday. So much for the biology.

What really impressed me was just how different old Henry's thinking was from the 'if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it' line of reasoning which can be found in all corners of British politics and British industry - in fact almost anything that's British. If it isn't actually broken we don't fix it. In contrast, what Henry had spotted was that if it wasn't broke you could always hit it with some sort of monkey wrench (or cost accountant) until it was.

Now, this opens up some interesting possibilities. For example, everybody knows (or we're always being told) that the country's economy, manufacturing industry, education system, legal system, health system, cultural and political institutions, etcetera ad infinitum ... are pretty well ruined and ready for the knacker's yard, if not already on the scrapheap.

At the same time we all know (or rather we're always being told) that nobody can rival our City of London, our defence aeronautics, our pharmaceutical research, our A levels, our Oxbridge, our legal system, our NHS, our BBC, our Mother of Parliaments ... our Queen - God bless her.

The clear implication of all this is that we inferior components have to strive to match up to the standards of these brightly gleaming working parts.

But I don't think such arguments would have got past old Henry's scrapyard division. They would have been sending back these pointlessly working parts of a no-longer functioning entity for a close inquisition - probably followed by a redesign and a lower specification and a re-application of resources so that you're not left with these useless gleaming bits when the rest of the car is failing its MOT for lack of basic maintenance.

Well, as I said, I never was a great fan of the junk-sifting habit. But you never know what you'll find when going through the junk heap - or when it just might come in handy.

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