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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:

  • An Aesop: Always check the the gender of a mammoth before attempting to milk it, especially as milking mammoths requires the milkee to be dangling helplessly from a very stout framework.
  • 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.
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  • Balloonacy: The unfortunate mammoth in the chapter on floating ends up the recipient of this when his rubber costume spontaneously inflates.
  • Bamboo Technology: A regular feature of the mammoth stories. Many of the giant machines are effectively bamboo technology versions of the modern appliances too.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The ending of "The Last Mammoth". Mammoth fails to find others of his species, meaning mammoths as a whole will most likely go extinct when he dies. But he has pumpkin pie and chocolate apples to replace swamp grass, which itself will soon go extinct, and a friend in Bill.
  • 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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  • Deliberately Monochrome: Each double-page spread of the book alternates between colour illustrations, and a dark brown sepia-like theme.
  • Exact Words: Bill offered companionship to Mammoth... of a sort. He just never said it would involve virtual reality. This comes back to bite him when Mammoth tries to get intimate with the virtual mammoth.
  • Fictional Currency: When explaining mechanical parking meters, the original 1988 print of the book told of a "mammoth" coin which bought two hours, a "hog" which bought one hour, and a "chicken" which bought a mere twelve minutes.
    • The chapter on printing techniques features a sequel story detailing the creation of banknotes. Unfortunately, the money is printed using leaves, which mammoths like to eat.
  • Giant Food: The chapter on cams and cranks opens with a story detailing a mammoth-powered mechanism used to create giant omelettes.
  • Gravity Is a Harsh Mistress: The recurring problem with flying mammoths is that, the moment the wind drops, so do they. Quite forcefully and destructively.
  • Hates Baths: All mammoths, apparently. The struggle to get one mammoth into a bath is used to illustrate the concepts of friction and lubrication.
    It should be noted that a mammoth's weight is its greatest defence, and that just by standing or sitting still, it is able to resist all but the most determined efforts to move it.
  • Honorable Mammoth: While generally dopey, the mammoths are usually portrayed as gentle creatures unless provoked. Played straight in one chapter, where a mammoth figures out the concept of screws on his own and uses it to save a princess.
  • Inertia Is a Cruel Mistress: And a mammoth has a lot of inertia. Especially one on a unicycle.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The inventor character 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.
    • He also doubts that the familiar shape taken by a bandaged mammoth could ever get off the ground.
  • Labcoat of Science and Medicine: When Mammoth enters the digital domain, he is surrounded by white-coated workers who record every aspect of his physical being.
  • Last of His Kind: Mammoth in The Last Mammoth, who enters Bills digital domain in the hope of companionship.
  • Mammoths Are Scared of Mice: If the mammoth story from the chapter on springs is anything to go by. Apparently, it runs in the family.
  • Metaphorically True: The inventor’s explanations for what he observes, while hampered by his limited understanding, do contain elements of truth which the book itself elaborates on.
    • Also goes for Bill’s offer of “companionship” to Mammoth (see Exact Words above).
  • 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.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: Played for Laughs in the chapter on telecommunication. The tribespeople's atrocious spelling leads to so many unintentional insults that they stop communicating altogether.
  • Oh, Crap!: The inventor has a mild case of this when he notes the agitated state of a mammoth getting its tusks trimmed. Seconds later, he’s proven right - and gets a good demonstration of the principles of the third-class lever into the bargain.
  • 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.
    • The entry for the wedge has the title split into pieces by an axe.
  • Single Tear: Just before he enters the digital domain, Mammoth sheds a single tear, which saturates Bill's tennis shoes.
  • Static Electricity: After a mammoth's hair has been lovingly combed, an assortment of litter, loose laundry and stray cats attach themselves to the mammoth.
  • Stone Punk: Often invoked not only in the mammoth stories, but also many of the technical illustrations.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology: Somehow, somebody in the land of the mammoths manages to build a working nuclear power plant.
    • Meanwhile, Bill has somehow managed to simulate the workings of computers and virtual reality using pumpkins, apples and melted chocolate.
  • Technophobia: Mammoth in The Last Mammoth is a downplayed version of this, specifically in regards to digital technology.
    While Mammoth had been impressed by much of the digital domain, there was also plenty about it that left him feeling uncomfortable. In the end, it was just too much, too big, too fast and too unfamiliar. Mammoths, after all, had never really embraced the concept of progress, and this one wasn't about to start now.
  • Tree Buchet: Happens to an unfortunate farmer courtesy of Eek, a Mouse!! from his mammoth helper. The story is used to illustrate the principle of springs in action.
  • 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.