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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


I like this picture:


I found it here. It is an escalator in the process of being replaced, at Charing Cross underground station, London. They’ve taken out the old one. They are now remaking whatever it is the new escalator will sit on top off. Then they will put in the new esacalator. It’s a routine they must have done dozens of times, with local variations to keep them on their toes. I do not doubt that when they finish their work, the escalator in question will function smoothly, no matter how many people ride on it or how heavy their luggage.

What I like about the photo is that it is, for me anyway, a reminder that there are still some things about our world that are progressing very nicely. The engineering of things like escalators continues to improve. But because the complexity that you see in this picture is, when the final object is rolled out, hidden, most people only think of such things on those rare occasions when they don’t work. At which point they grumble.

One of the big divisions in the world now, it seems to me, is between those who assume that such progress will necessarily continue, no matter how many mistakes the politicians make, and those who do not. Some people take technological progress for granted, while others notice it (often because they do it themselves for a living), want it very much to continue, but do not assume that it automatically will continue, no matter what.

22 comments to ESC3

  • I’m pleased that there are people who still know how to design the things, but I’m particularly grateful that there are other people who can actually screw or, um, bolt them together (weld?) in such a manner that they actually work.

    They’re the ones we don’t appreciate enough.

  • Bruce

    I don’t know what they make in London, but here in Washington Metro escalator/elevator techs average $80,600/yr. as of 2009. I think that’s pretty good “appreciation”!

  • guy herbert

    What puzzles me is why London Underground hasn’t standardised escalators over the last few decades at the same time as it has eliminated wooden treads on nominal health and safety grounds. Each one is still different and refurbishment takes weeks.

    One of those mysteries of the system that may never be solved, perhaps.

    Another is the hundreds of millions spent on introducing “step-free” platform access every time a station is rebuilt, when “step-free” access to the trains themselves is generally impossible. Not only are disabled trainspotters a rare minority to decide to cater to, but loitering on the platforms is now regarded with deep suspicion. You are likely to find yourself interrogated as a security threat.

  • True, one of the most satisfying things working in an engineering role is that you are actually doing something real and generally useful. It is also pretty satisfying to see a project come together in physical form, but unfortunately it is rather anti-climatic once it is finished.

  • I’m one of those people who always think, almost subconsciously, about how a thing I’m using actually works. I guess it’s still what’s left of the engineer in me. I also happen to be one of those people who do not take technology for granted at all, and also am quite pessimistic about the fate of its progress in the foreseeable future – but I don’t think that the latter is necessarily a consequence of the former. Think of Dale, for example: unlike me, he’s a real engineer (duh), and yet he seems to be endlessly optimistic about technological progress. I guess it has to do with a general outlook on life more than anything else. What’s certain is that I do hope that people like Dale are proven to be far more right than I am.

  • Schrodinger's Dog


    You wrote: “… the complexity that you see … is … hidden.”

    But isn’t this true of just about everything? And not just escalators or other mechanical or electronic systems. Doing even everyday tasks well requires a lot of knowledge. As the classic essay “I, Pencil” shows, no one person understands how to make even something so mundane as a pencil from scratch. This explains why state control of industry has proved to be such an unmitigated disaster. Even something as seemingly simple as getting bread to the shops is in fact very complex, and far beyond the organisational capabilities of a government bureaucrat. Hence the shortages of bread and other staples in communist societies.

  • Schrodinger’s dog –

    That was one of my themes when I gave tours of the museum. We had a horrendous big and complicated x-ray machine circa 1905. Bare brass, wire, and high voltage everywhere. And you had to be a real expert to use it, with all those dangerous complications. (Oh, yes, I forgot the spinning nozzle spewing mercury.)

    Today, all people usually see of an x-ray machine’s controls are a knob, a button, and perhaps a foot pedal. You cannot turn this sort of thing loose on even an educated public until you’ve got all the tricky bits hidden!

    And so it is with elevators and escalators, your automobile, and the light-switch on your wall. Only half of progress is the invention; the other half is taming the invention so it behaves in polite company.

  • Mikey McD

    It ain’t progress if this unneeded contraption requires force (taxes) to ‘produce’ it. In the USA we could use more stairs.

  • Mendicant Bias

    Hmm, who paid for those escalators? The taxpayer, who is being screwed deep and hard by Network Rail and its assorted corporate welfare parasites.

    Escalators are the most pointless of all human inventions, they are slow, inconvenient, and only of benefit to the fat and the lazy.

  • Escalators are the most pointless of all human inventions, they are slow, inconvenient, and only of benefit to the fat and the lazy.

    Not been on the Moscow metro, then?

  • Mendicant Bias wrote:

    Escalators are the most pointless of all human inventions, they are slow, inconvenient, and only of benefit to the fat and the lazy.

    I’m not sure where MB hails from, but in London on the underground railway (the scene of Brian’s photo) those who wish to stand still on escalators (the majority, especially outside the rush-hour) do so on the right hand side. Those who wish to walk, do so on the left. Escalators save time and energy and are less trouble than lifts, combining (much) queuing and the required uplift in the same space.

    Thus, they are (at least here in London) of benefit to all, and not just the fat and lazy.

    As well as queuing space and uplift, they are thus an example of societal good moves based on rational thought and action, by each individual deciding to follow the signed advice and (more obviously) the example of everyone else. Only rarely are the (also individually given) words “excuse me please” required – refusal is almost unknown, stepping rightwards usually being within 2 seconds.

    Best regards

  • James Stanfield

    Escalators are the most pointless of all human inventions, they are slow, inconvenient, and only of benefit to the fat and the lazy.

    Speaking as a disabled person who finds stairs a nightmare, I’d like to offer a heartfelt “fuck you” to Mendicant Bias. And as pointed out, the custom in the UK is stand on the right, walk on the left. Did I mention “fuck you” already?

  • Good on Brian for raising the issue of technology within society, and the necessary inability for all of us to understand all the technology sufficiently to build it ourselves; also the other comments above on the economic benefit of such specialisation.

    What we all can do, to some extent, is what used to be referred to as systems engineering. Understanding the basic/main components that make up each machine and how they interact together to provide the functionality. Often, this is obvious, but not always.

    In my youth, books with titles such as How It Works and How It’s Done used to be popular. I think there are now TV programmes of similar intent (channel 38 IIRC has one); though, sadly, some are more into spectacle and entertainment and so have output of restricted scope.

    The benefit of this for all of us is opportunity for better use of the equipment/facility, leading to longer life. Plus also better understanding of failure modes, so leading to earlier diagnosis and maintenance/repair – or adjusted expectations.

    Best regards

  • Not been on one of the deep tube lines then Mendicant Bias ? Good luck with the spiral stairs at Russell Square for instance all 170 something of them, no softy escalators there, of course you might prefer the jam packed lifts, which presumably aren’t paid for by the taxpayer. Might be an idea if you learnt the difference between Network Rail and TfL as well.

  • Mendicant Bias

    Let me add TFL is taxpayer-funded.. Why?
    Surely someone else could fund it.

    Outside your fairy-tale land of London, where you are cossetted and coddled by the taxpayer at my and others expense, UK public transport is a national joke. If you are disabled and live outside socialist London, you’re stuffed.

  • Mendicant Bias writes again (is there no stopping him/her):

    Outside your fairy-tale land of London, where you are cossetted and coddled by the taxpayer at my and others expense …

    It is my understanding that taxpayers in London (especially) and the South East and East Anglia heavily subsidise many other regions of the UK, including all of the north, Scotland and Wales; also bits of the west and the Midlands. [Apologies to those whom this treats with too broad a brush: I’m looking to be brief.]

    The concept therefore, that the rest of the UK subsidises London is actually a bit of a joke.

    Has MB found a new calling: politics?

    Best regards

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Mendicant Bias, your comments about escalators are foolish (not to mention chippy). Stairs are obviously not useful for the disabled and in some stations, a struggle even for the able-bodied (such as those with heavy luggage on their way to a hotel or airport). Lifts are sometimes not ideal for the same purpose. Hence such escalators.

    London needs this sort of technology; as the capital and financial hub of the UK, it more than pays its share of such things. I don’t know where you get the idea that the capital is on the take from the rest of the UK. (I am sure that folk in say, Norfolk are really bummed at the lack of such things).

    Back on the topic: that’s a great photo. And a reminder of how complex and engineered this sort of thing is. I use these almost every day I go to work.

    There is even a UK trade association(Link) to represent those who make these things.

  • Mendicant Bias

    But, again, why should the taxpayer pay for it?

    And as for those “who make these sort of things”, they are scamming and very likely overcharging, as their contracts are slanted heavily against the taxpayer. As for the UK Trade Association, they are a bunch of dilletantes whose only talent is wasting public money, and lobbying for the further wasting of it on “capital projects”.

    Why do you imply that the London disabled are somehow superior to disabled people outside London, who have to suffer the worst rail service on Earth; Notwork Fail?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Mendicant, what’s eating you? Who has said the taxpayer should pay? This is a free market blog, in case you haven’t been in these parts before


  • Mendicant Bias

    The fact is, the taxpayer is paying for this farce, in many cases twice.

    Again, why is the taxpayer paying for something that is privately run and foreign owned? The irony is that British Rail cost alot less than Notwork Fail.

    I’m afraid escalators don’t change the fact that UK public transport is an utterly irredeemable failure. A sadistic joke at taxpayer’s expense.

    You appear to be saying “never mind the atrocious taxpayer-screwing rail service, look at the pretty escalators”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    As far as I am concerned, the original point of the post of Brian’s was pointing out the engineering marvels of such things and how we take them for granted. Mendicant chooses to have a rant about how useless they are(untrue) and then whine about how London is living off the rest of the UK(also untrue, and very obviously so).

    Try and get angry about something rather more worthy of your spleen. I mean, escalators?