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Literature / The Way Things Work

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The Way Things Work is a 1988 science book by David Macaulay with Neil Ardley, which explains the way things work, from simple levers to computers, flight simulators and robots. The workings of machines are shown in cutaway illustrations, often depicting giant versions of machines operated by people moving about inside (or in some cases, by angels), while the principles behind them are often described through humorous stories involving woolly mammoths.


Spawned a TV series and was updated as The Way Things Work Now in 2016.

Tropes in The Way Things Work:

  • Ambiguous Time Period: It's not clear when, or indeed where, the mammoth stories take place. They certainly seem to occur long after the real extinction of the mammoth, but the technology is wood-and-stone-based, and the people living with mammoths don't seem to use metals (though evidently they live in a world where other people do, since they've come up with a rudimentary metal detector).
  • Animal Jingoism: The illustration for the vacuum cleaner has a cat being sucked up, and a couple of mice looking very pleased with their work.
  • Bamboo Technology: A regular feature of the mammoth stories. Many of the giant machines are effectively bamboo technology versions of the modern appliances too.
  • Black Humor: The illustration for Nuclear Fallout (a very long underground staircase leads to a fallout shelter at the bottom of the page, where a group of people are singing "Happy Birthday to You") is very much this, as well as Mood Whiplash.
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  • Inertia Is a Cruel Mistress: And a mammoth has a lot of inertia. Especially one on a unicycle.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The author finds it "ludicrous" when a colleague suggests he makes a mammoth-fan that is powered by a stream of water rather a stream of men jumping on to a mattress.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Many of the illustrations of giant machines invoke this. Special mention should be made of the illustration which introduces the "Harnessing The Elements" section of the book, depicting a host of angels working on the world's first whoopee cushion.
  • Painting the Medium: On the entry for suction machines, there is a mammoth with suction cup shoes on the line that separates the title from the other machines.
  • Stone Punk: Often invoked not only in the mammoth stories, but also many of the technical illustrations.
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  • Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Somehow, somebody in the land of the mammoths manages to build a working nuclear power plant.
  • Tuckerization: In "Part 5: The Digital Domain", the owner of the digital domain is a clear reference to Bill Gates.
    So it came to pass that Mammoth, who generally distrusted high walls, warily entered Bill's gates.


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