John Macnab

Posted on Feb 28, 2012

John Macnab

As a child I disliked having my hair cut. I loathed the whole experience, being dropped off while my mother shopped, stranded for an eternity, made to sit on a box in the chair, being ignored by everyone, everyone including these strange men chatting in a foreign language while cutting my hair. My barbers were Italian. Straight from southern Italy, gold chains, shirts half open and hair that stood up in front, longer and much more fun than my own. In the sixties on the high street in my neighborhood, barbering was big. There was one striking dilemma for me, that mesmerizing barber pole – an eternity machine poised on the side of the very institution I found so frightening. A device that posed questions that could not be answered by anyone and I hesitated to stick around too long or examine it too closely. I pondered, was it also filled with liquid like the balls floating in the old gas station pumps? I was familiar with an old gas pump where the gasoline went up into a clear chrome capped glass cylinder the same size as the barbers pole, red and yellow balls dancing around when the gas filled and rushed around and down into our Pontiac. Mostly I wondered what happened to the twisting red and white lines as they ascended mysteriously out of view. Later on I made a lathe .

Mechanical production was always supported by handwork of the highest order, as exemplified by the pattern-maker, tool-and-die maker, and millwright. I have had to undertake all of these functions to carry forward my own work. I began by modifying a traditional wood lathe to carry out the more complex geometric operations which describe my recent columns and cones, and by modifying cutting tools capable of tracing out the compound hollows. I have now constructed an entirely new machine. Although its instructions are embodied in the relative action of gears, linkages, and other mechanisms, the machine should be understood as a programmable mathematically controlled device. With this machine I explore the symmetries of compound conical helices, which to some extent are anticipated in nineteenth century studies of biological growth and in twentieth century orbital mechanics. I continue to devise ways in which these functions can be more readily reprogrammed.

The history of spindle turning may be traced to ancient Mesopotamia, where mathematics and mechanically determined form seem to have originated in tandem. I believe a line of descent may be drawn from these origins to the geometric complexities attained by machinists of the high industrial era. This is the tradition in which I locate myself and which I am trying to advance.

Steadfast adherence to that fascination, maintaining the joy of curiosity, not like an engineer, inhabiting the realm of that which is certain, but as a mystic, in the joy of what is just beyond knowledge.

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