Reassembling Our Love of Everyday Engineering

We hope you’ll forgive us for a moment of misty-eyed nostalgia, but we’re very much enjoying an odd little series currently on BBC Four – James May’s The Reassembler. The principle is extremely simple – take ordinary everyday objects, such as a small petrol lawnmower, an electric guitar or a Hornby electric train set, start with them in what appears to be a thousand pieces and slowly and methodically put them back together.

It’s no surprise that such a programme would be fascinating – it takes ingenious solutions to specific problems, such as how to take the hard work out of lawn mowing or how to make the sound of a guitar louder – and lays bare the engineering behind them for all to see. What you may not have expected, however, is that West Yorkshire Steel’s favourite episode so far has been… putting back together a food processor.

The Kenwood Chef A701a made the tough kitchen chores of mixing and baking easy, all encased in a futuristic, minimalist and sleek casing that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Buck Rogers. It’s only when all the pieces are laid bare, however, that you realise the magic behind the mixer is actually good, old-fashioned engineering. Although there’s a simple dial that turns on the electric motor and starts to the rotor, there’s an incredibly complex series of steel cogs that go to form a gearbox to produce a very precise epicyclical movement that effectively mixes the ingredients in the bowl.

There’s still a slight bias to think that steel is the chosen material of the Industrial Revolution and large industry, but our very own small domestic appliances are equally reliant on our favourite substance. Despite ‘plastics’ being en vogue since the 1960’s, up to 70% of the equipment in our home is made from steel and the Kenwood Chef is no different. Despite the sleek, 1960’s-view-of-the-future aesthetics, it’s the solid foundation of well-oiled machinery that makes the Kenwood Chef, put simply, a well-oiled machine.

As May himself notes, there’s a sense that things in the past were ‘made to last’ and the fact that a 50-year old food mixer is not only still working, but will stand up to the punishment of being entirely disassembled into its component parts, then re-soldered and rebuilt to carry on working again. The solid sub-structure offered by the steel will certainly hold up to a lot of punishment!

We may think of the modern world as being an entirely digital affair, where everything is a one or a zero, but the truth is that our modern lives are as much about micro-engineering as the microprocessor; our homes are as much about the clever, precise use of steel as they are about the printed circuitboard. We think that’s a very comforting idea, and we look forward to seeing inside much more thanks to Mr May.