Everyone who breathes has his or her own special hobby—some little pastime to distract them from the tensions of their everyday routine. And quite naturally, a person's hobby matches his personality.
Salesmen and finance executives, for example, seem universally to like golf. Makes sense. Their facility with numbers comes in handy around the eighth hole when they realize their final score might not be what they had hoped.
I've read that many scientists enjoy playing musical instruments because of the mathematical precision of musical scores. Case in point: that underrated violinist Albert Einstein. He once credited his scientific discoveries to his musical perception. (Makes me wish I had stayed with the guitar more than two weeks!)
Engineers, of course, like to tinker and build things. Show me an engineer who doesn't have two or three personal projects swirling around in his head and I'll show you a professional destined for a career change—say from product design and manufacturing to shoe sales. Engineers arguably have the best workshops in their neighborhoods. They've got tools for everything. In fact, they often are like lending libraries, loaning their tools to others.
Among engineers' favorite things to tinker with are their cars. Many of you developed a love for engineering tuning up dad's old Pontiac or fixing machinery on the farm. You didn't know what engineering was, but you loved getting your hands dirty taking things apart. Okay, sometimes they didn't go back together so easily, but that was part of the fun (though dad may not have thought so!).
Some like to restore and drive classic cars. Others, despite the increasing electronic content of modern vehicles, still like to do their own maintenance. It's probably equal parts stinginess and technical challenge. Who doesn't want to save a buck if you can have fun at the same time? But sometimes you can get caught up in the challenge and forget some basic problem-solving principles, like keeping it simple, and planning for the unexpected. Here are a couple of tales of engineers who temporarily forgot those principles in their eagerness to have fun while fixing cars. So we don't embarrass them, we won't use their names.
An engineer who works for an automotive supplier was having a problem with his own car's low-beam headlights. They weren't working. Neither of them. What to do? He took off the steering column and traced the wiring all the way down and found guess what—no wiring or switch problems! Only after he went through that exercise did he check the bulbs themselves. Yup, they were both burned out. He replaced the bulbs. Problem solved, but lots of time wasted.
Another acquaintance who designs medical products was working on a 1940 Chevy pickup that wouldn't start. He poured gasoline into the carburetor, but he spilled some gas on the engine block. The engine backfired and started a fire, which he extinguished with carpeting from the driver's seat. Much later he tried that trick again—and started another fire. This time he had a fire extinguisher, which doused the flames immediately. Then, he spread the remaining contents of the canister around the yard, causing a cloud that brought his wife outside asking him what the heck was going on. Not a good thing.
Our first example is probably still trying to get the steering column back together. At least he is still playing with his car. Our second is cleaning up the yard.
Reach Teague at firstname.lastname@example.org.