Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | January 11, 2012

Manual dexterity

From an interview with Professor Heinz Wolff in the Engineering & Technology, an in-house magazine of IET.

After the brain, Wolff explains, the ‘most marvellous thing we have’ is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. ‘I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens.

‘We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.’ His obvious implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

His hands flash across a QWERTY keyboard. ‘Apart from typing, we don’t use our hands. Girls don’t embroider; boys don’t play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you’re seven years old. And it’s really very clever. But it’s gone.’

Wolff has lectured on the ‘death of competence’ and he thinks it’s brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. ‘Our engineering students can’t make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can’t make things. And I don’t believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.’ He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because ‘you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory’.

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that whilst all teachers agree children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, ‘they don’t attach the same values to the use of their hands.’


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