One of the hallmarks of being human is the use of tools. Unlike other animals, we need tools. Our survival, as well as most of our satisfaction derives from our ability to conceive and produce and utilize objects not readily found in nature. From the first chipped stones on through the microprocessors in our computers, human history is essentially the story of tool use.
In its most limited sense, a tool is defined as an instrument used or worked by hand, such as a hammer. In essence, tools are extensions of our hands, devised to allow us to exert greater force upon an object than our bare fingers or palms or fists are capable of doing.
Tigers and bears come equipped with claws; man relies upon some form of cutting blade. An elephant can wrap its trunk around a log and move it; we make use of rollers or levers, or, by extension, a hoist.
When you boil it all down, most tools help us perform one of four functions or combinations thereof - cutting, moving, measuring or fastening.
Tools allow us to shape things: to alter their contours, as when we chop or saw a tree into boards or pulpwood; combine two or more separate things together, as when we join joists and studs and rafters to build a house; or transform a thing into something different, as when we shred and stew pulpwood into paper.
As might be expected, the tools we use affect us. Swinging a hammer year after year is apt to cause bursitis. Clacking away at a keyboard can trigger carpal tunnel syndrome. Operating heavy equipment can rob us of hearing.
But there is a brighter side to this. Prolonged and competent use of these same tools, or any others, can bring us pleasure and pride as our ability to use them approaches artistry. Whether saw or shovel, scalpel or spatula, sewing machine or spinnaker, the deft use of tools delights us in unique and lasting ways.
Good tools, well designed and properly constructed, are a joy to work with. Shoddy tools are a different story. There are few things in life more vexing than to work with poorly made tools. Your hand recoils from their unwelcoming handle. Your back twists from their unbalanced weight. They transform your fingers into thumbs, your smile into a scowl. Prolonged exposure to bad tools can cause serious and deep-seated feelings of discontent.
We may think it's the job we dislike, when in fact it may be the tools we use to do the job.
A fascinating study could be made of the cultural differences among tools. The European hand saw, for example, cuts only on the down stroke, while the Japanese saw cuts on the up stroke. In our culture, force is poured out; in theirs it's pulled in.
From the cradle to the casket, our lives are shaped by the tools we use and the thousands of objects we make with them. Take away our tools and we would perish. In a profound and ongoing way, tools are what make us human.
Copyright 2009 by Craig Nagel
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