Saga of a Mechanical Engineering Student


Al-jazari’s Elephant Clock

As you can see, I’ve called this a saga rather than a memoir. An ongoing saga is how I view my sudden desire to become an engineer instead of a writer. It’s a current force of drama in my life because, although three of my children will be grown up or practically grown up by the time I finish, I still have many family responsibilities at this moment. In short, life is very different now from the days when I finished my first degree. For a start, I have no desire to join in the educational bubble, thereby putting my family into further debt, so I’ve decided to pay for school myself. Yesterday, when I posted, I didn’t have a job. Today I (probably) do. This is good. This means I can work part time and save money for spring semester and, hopefully, manage to keep my job throughout so I can continue paying for classes.

But why did I choose mechanical engineering? Many people have asked me that, and my usual answer is that it is a very broad engineering discipline, allowing for a range of job opportunities (never mind that I secretly just want to build robots). What if I could design something useful, though? What if I could design medical equipment for disabled people, for example? I like that idea. But, honestly, mechanical engineering runs the gamut of new and inventive designs from bicycles and mechanized body parts to spacecraft. The sky’s not even the limit, really, as long as my creativity knows no bounds. I’m teaching myself to be a more creative person. Is that possible? Yes, I think it is.

In any case, mechanics are fascinating. Rube Goldberg understood very deeply just how fascinating they are, in and of themselves. Although based off rather simple physical properties, they can be incredibly complex for the most basic results. Al-jazari’s elephant clock (pictured above) is a medieval example of simple physical properties, complex parts, with the basic result of telling time. It’s very much an artistic, Goldberg-like invention. To save me from an in-depth explanation of its working parts, here’s the Wiki description:

The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant(underneath the head). In the bucket is a deep bowl floating in the water, but with a small hole in the centre. The bowl takes half an hour to fill through this hole. In the process of sinking, the bowl pulls a string attached to a see-saw mechanism in the tower on top of the elephant. This releases a ball that drops into the mouth of a Serpent, causing the serpent to tip forward, which pulls the sunken bowl out of the water via strings. At the same time, a system of strings causes a figure in the tower to raise either the left or right hand and the mahout (elephant driver at the front) to hit a drum. This indicates a half or full hour. Next the snake tips back. The cycle then repeats, as long as balls remain in the upper reservoir to power the emptying of the bowl.

Engineers, in general, often have a bizarre artistic streak. They seem to be in touch with the universal notion of absurdity. Perhaps, there is an absurdist muse who reaches out and touches their souls. Well, I’ve certainly been touched with that muse my entire life. So has my dad, who, by the way, is a retired engineer. Study my dad’s rhino painting below and try to figure that one out. If you want to see more, go here.

A. Leon Miler's Two Rhinos are breaking into a new dimension.

A. Leon Miler’s Two Rhinos are breaking into a new dimension.



  1. Mechanical engineering is very broad and covers everything from spacecraft to plastic bottles. It was my major in college, driven by an interest in spaceflight. Writing, though, has always been there in the background, which may someday overtake the other.

    An ME degree is nearly like having a physics degree. So many of the classes are really physics in disguise (thermodynamics, fluid mechanics…). A love of physics, the most fundamental science of all, goes hand in hand with egr.

    1. Yes, that seems to be the case (about the study of physics in ME). I’ve always been a writer; it’s suited me well for having children. I think, though, that writing will drop to the background and engineering will overtake it for me. It’s been there niggling for some time.

  2. My three best friends are mechanical and chemical engineers and a lot of my second tier friends are engineers of various stripes. I’m not sure why…They seem to have concrete and logical ways of approaching everything that I find funny somehow. Maybe absurd is the best word–the concrete logic works well for designing things and it somehow seems funny when applied to religion or other issues. It’s almost like they want to be free-spirited or something in a way, so they develop a plan and set it into motion step by step but it never seems quite right. Like my one friend, a mechanical engineer, decided to learn how to skate board. He got pretty good at it technically speaking, he could do the tricks, but it just never looked quite right. There’s something funny in that. Not just the slightly awkward tricks, but the absolute commitment to the process. Another one learned various latin dances and another one learned jiu jitsu. Another one decided to write a book set in ancient Mesopotamia, did tons of research and ended up creating flowcharts with links to all the information organized. Then he tried to write the book but kept slipping back into research paper mode. I’m not sure, but I think it’s all in some kind of logical quest or something. Something I find really funny about it all. I get along pretty well with authentic free-spirits, but engineers are really interesting.

    1. I think what you’re describing is a personality type that’s attracted to engineering, rather than the other way around. I can relate to this personality. It’s almost as if, instead of living, one is researching to make it appear as if one is living. It’s a mimicry, almost, of what “real” people do.

  3. “It’s almost as if, instead of living, one is researching to make it appear as if one is living. It’s a mimicry, almost, of what “real” people do.”

    I find that really funny and delightful I think because everybody does it somewhat, but they make it explicit which reveals some of the strangeness of life. One I know, to be whimsical, started a hobby of dollar bill origami. He does them only on the plane home from business trips and gives them to his girlfriend. He’s the one who decided to learn jiu jitsu and wanted to put on 15-20 lbs. of muscle to get up to the lowest weight class to compete in a mixed martial arts competition. Which is normal on paper, but still somehow really funny from him. “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy.”

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