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Bill Hammack, The Engineering Guy and author "The Things We Make"
Episode 26418th September 2023 • Unlocking Your World of Creativity • Mark Stinson
00:00:00 00:26:26

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In this episode of "Unlocking Your World of Creativity," host Mark interviews Bill Hammack, the author of "The Things We Make: The Unknown History of Invention, From Cathedrals to Soda Cans."

Book: https://www.amazon.com/Things-We-Make-Invention-Cathedrals/dp/1728215757

Bill, known as the "Engineering Guy," shares insights on engineering and ingenuity, reflecting on his own journey from radio to YouTube fame. Here are five key topics and quotes from Bill Hammack in the interview:

1. **Engineering and Creativity:** Bill discusses how engineering has become an internet sensation through platforms like YouTube. He emphasizes the importance of creativity in engineering and how it's not just about the technical aspects but also storytelling.

> "That is at the heart of your podcast. We're talking about creating things. But there's a way in which at the beginning we were a little bit alone in doing it."

2. **Iterative Process:** Bill explains how he adopts an iterative approach to his creative work, emphasizing the importance of structure and crafting the narrative in his videos.

> "And that's where I spend most of my effort, is what is the order of the information going to do, to, to, what's going to happen with it?"

3. **Collaboration in Invention:** Bill delves into the collaborative nature of invention and how even famous inventors like Edison worked with teams and collaborators. He highlights the importance of acknowledging the collective effort behind inventions.

> "By not looking at it as a system of people that do it, we actually lose the engineering and we lose sight of it."


4. **Creativity as Problem-Solving:** Bill explains that engineering is fundamentally about solving problems before science has all the answers. Engineers use trial and error, rules of thumb, and creative thinking to innovate and make things work.

> "And this is something that I do find upsets people; it is its own method and it uses trial and error."


5. **Embracing Imperfections:** Bill shares the value of embracing imperfections and the idea that every creative work will have its defects. He encourages creators to let go and focus on the beauty within their creations.

> "Let go. Look, everything I've made has defects in it. You're not going to get perfection, and you just have to let it go."


Bill's Website

Bill on YouTube

@billengineerguy on Instagram

Bill's Facebook page


Bill Hammack's insights highlight the intersection of engineering, creativity, and storytelling, offering valuable lessons for creators and innovators in various fields.


Copyright 2024 Mark Stinson


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Transcripts

[:

Bill Hammack,

welcome to the show. Mark, thank you. I'm happy to be

here.

he's the author of a new book called The Things We Make, The Unknown History of Invention, From Cathedrals to Soda Cans. Bill, I knew I was going to be talking to the engineering guy, a great handle that you've developed for yourself, and an author of this book.

I did not know I would be speaking with such a YouTube star. How do you think engineering became the internet sensation? That it's become for you?

ish I had an answer to that. [:

And I think also it's partly that one of the hallmarks of new media is you aggregate an audience now, around the world that's interested in a subject that You know, only in the U. S. or only in the U. K. or only in Spain or wherever you would never aggregate enough people that were interested in it.

production and you can test [:

and they're really great videos.

The simplicity and the production first of all, and so it is all about the story. And why don't we go there? It's like the story of how we create things and then how we make them. Isn't it an interesting bridge then to think about all the sort of inventions and ideas we have, moving that over into the actual production.

When you deal a lot with how did they make it? Not just how did they come up with the idea, but how did they make it?

And that is a absolutely a fascinating thing to me and i'll tell you one of the frustrations with it Is much of how they make it as a trade secret. All right we would like to go in and film diaper lines and things production of diapers.

packets that you have right [:

And there's no chance they will let me in there. To see how that happens. And so that's actually one of the hard parts of about the work, but what I find fascinating is the reliability from these, the reproducibility. It turns out if you buy things and one out of a hundred fails, you'll stop buying that, right?

That sounds extraordinary, but no we're well, past, that point for most of the things. We have these little cheese sticks my kids eat. If that particular brand doesn't open, we're done with those. You can find ones that do open well. So that to me, it is those.

Two things together as you put, how do you conceive it? And then how you design a way to make it into manufacture it. And as I just said, to make it reliable, that's fascinating to me.

Yes, because we do live in somewhat of a zero defect expectation, don't we? As consumers. It's yes, exactly. And part of that's driven by digital.

work right, you're right, we [:

And I speak from experience. I was trying to open a cheesesteak last night and I was hungry and couldn't and so I, I noted that. That brand. And

your research for this book does span, the sort of simple everyday objects all the way to right there in the subtitle is cathedrals.

And we often are fascinated by this. Look, they didn't have the same science. They didn't have the CAD programs and the, art programs that we have today. How did they make that? And you're really into that.

Yes, and the reason I chose Cathedral specifically was because I think it strips bare the engineering method, because it removes all the stuff that you talked about that's confused for the engineering method, the tool is often confused for the method and it's not to say that none of that is useful, we want all of that.

ave a video about it, is how [:

And that's the essence of the engineering method is, it's not hypothesis driven, It's not even necessarily science driven, and this is something that I do find upsets people it is its own method and it uses trial and error, it uses scientific information where you can get it it uses rules of thumb principally, which are a shorthand way to, to design something without having to push.

Construct from first principles why it should work or why it doesn't work. And it's a fundamentally different way to operate than science. So I do go in a bit to how they size those walls and the rule of them that they use, which we would articulate as it's a certain percentage of the walls, the arches width, but they would never have said it like that.

nderstanding. That they were [:

Because the, and the point that I think you were alluding to there is the purpose of the engineering method is. To solve problems before science has reached conclusions, that's contradictory to most people and is the reason that it exists. And so in a way, this book is all about the creativity of engineers to get around a lack of scientific knowledge.

How do they parameterize things? How do they think about things?

And we do think of engineering as a very precise, exact science, right? And yes, what did you learn then about the creative process? And the way these inventors think and put the ideas together.

The first thing is that the, since this is a heuristic method, that it's anything that helps.

[:

And it allowed him to invent this O ring seal, but it was a completely wrong way that it operated, right? But it gave him a visual image, it gave him, something something to work with, something to iterate around. And I think that's another point, a lot of these are iterative. The most interesting person I talk about in the book is a guy named Osborne Reynolds, who was just a very visual thinker.

very odd perhaps even just a [:

My, I struggle with the video medium because I'm not a particularly visual thinker. And have to use techniques to. To get around that.

And one of those videos that has garnered what 18 million views or something is about the soda can and you think what more simple idea than the soda can, could we make a video out of?

And yet people I see in the comments, people say this comes up in my feed every couple of years and I have to watch it another four times because I'm fascinated by it. We would,

we would love to know the magic. We know a little bit I'm generally interested in a pop can and and that comes across maybe there's also some things that we did that make it resonate.

go around a series of tables [:

In fact, on my website, there's a version of him delivering the script, I believe and you see him, him doing it. And I hope my revelation is correct. I'm happy to give Steve all the credit for that, but that's great.

That's something I wanted to explore with you too, Bill, is this idea of collaboration and teamwork.

It's sometimes underappreciated that even the great inventors, the name brand inventors worked with teams, worked with mentees, worked with other, collaborators to get these things off the ground. What did you learn about that

in your research? The prime example we use is in the book is Edison.

as inventing the lightbulb. [:

And There, we want to we freeze in our mind that moment of Edison doing that, and don't look at the whole system of development that happened over 30 or 40 years. For example, the filaments that he used, the carbon filaments that made Edison's light bulbs burn were refined by a guy named Maxim, who was most famous for a machine gun.

Today, the maximum machine gun and then they're very odd, creative kind of guy. And we don't. There was also a a engineer who developed a way to, to manufacture those filaments. And I tell those stories in there because they get lost in just talking about Edison. And the problem about just talking about Edison is We miss the engineering, right?

We think, okay, he [:

So interesting.

And what were the implications of all this for your own creative process? This is not your first book. I don't know, seven or eight before this. You even talked about how engineers need to grow, I think was the word a long tail, thinking long term and what are the implications then for your own research, your own writing, your own all the way through publication?

n there and, I'm moving into [:

And then ask myself, what could we do with that? What did that mean? How would we film that? How did it look with this lens and that lens? And I figured out two ways I like to shoot them and the kind of things we could do. So that was an iterative aspect to it. And I think the other thing is everybody in their cre the way they create has a certain strength.

And the thing that I like is structure. So I rely on, if you will, craft to help eliminate the possibilities, because if we have a blank piece of paper, it's just everything. So maybe we're, if to go to TikTok again, because it's on my mind, what do we do in 40 seconds? You only have 40. And I started in radio.

a half minutes. And I loved [:

In my videos, you have this presentation that you can follow very carefully, and that takes a long time to do. And that's where I spend most of my effort, is what is the order of the information going to do, to, to, what's going to happen with it? Because in a video, you want to write in these small 30 second circles, where you make a point, And it links to the next point.

ompanion videos to that book.[:

And for each of those, I wrote out about a page or two pages with What I call an if then statement, and I'll tell you right away, it comes from, I think it's Trey Parker at South Park. They talked about their creative process, and I'm always reading about people's creative process and extracting what I can.

And they said you never want to write something and something and you want If this happens, then this happens. Because that gives you a structure and a momentum. And I took that and I used a thesaurus and I found a lot of contract, not contractions, what's the fancy word for where, for whether, thus.

Yes, these transition phrases. Yeah, these transitions, there's a good grammar word for them. And I have them all in front of me and I will write this whole statement. If they, if the medieval masons learned this, then this happened, which means, and so I have this whole structure worked out before I write a script.

of images in my mind of what [:

Especially for those who do think in structure, I must have the five points and I must list them out in the order that they occur,

so exactly. And it's surprising how long that takes to. At least for me, I should say

I think for all of us I'm, glad you brought up the radio background.

I couldn't help but notice just a little bit of a bill Kurtis inflection in your voice So you I come at it naturally I think but I

also I met bill curtis very early on before I did radio We had a meeting with him the nicest man in the world Yes, we're in there. We're meeting with him. We're trying to pitch him a show and his dog comes over and he pets it.

next door. And it just comes [:

I used to work next door to Bill Curtis. And so I would see him at lunch a lot at this particular restaurant. And he talks just like that at lunch and you're like, I'm having lunch with a documentary.

So he's slightly older, but I think we're both Midwesterners. I was born in Indiana, raised in Michigan and actually had a Southern Indiana accent, which I worked with a voice teacher to get rid of when I was in my thirties, I think, early thirties. It worked with her. But yes, I think it's largely

well picking up on these Midwest roots.

We're talking with you at the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. How did all of this storytelling either affect or derive from perhaps your teaching? You've got to be able to expound this to students.

take the route back a little [:

My father, my mother really, was a botanist. As kids we were doing science things and she would freeze a bee so slow it down, wouldn't kill it, but we could then study it and watch it. And she would prick her finger and put blood under a microscope. We had that and showed us. My father was a theater professor.

I like to argue I came by it naturally because I remember sitting and watching him do his craft. He did something called blocking. A theater director has to work out where people are going to go. Where are you going to enter? Who are you going to embrace? What are you going to do? What kind of business are you going to do?

t, and of course this was the:

And it certainly is something that I want to do. And I spent a lot of time early on in this studying narrative and digging into historiography. So how historians think about narrative and how do they tell a story correctly. And accurately. And I spent a lot of time reading in that literature, and I loved it.

It was congenial to what I wanted to do and what I like. But I had a explicit study of it early on and tried to apply it in the in the radio pieces. And in fact, I still want to do more narrative things even more narrative and I haven't had the chance to, but I'm about to start a new project and I have a blank yellow pad and I'm taking notes and yes.

Maybe it will come about. I don't know.

still have that sort of over [:

we?

Oh, absolutely. And in fact, I've been, I'll just say right now, we make up nothing. I've been reading about Neanderthal technology. They make glues. They made this. There's the engineering method. What? That's fascinating to me. What can I do with that? What should I do with that? And so often I will spend in an early phase of a project a lot of time reading and just reading quickly and rapidly and maybe even making a sketch of what something would look like, a book would look like, a video would look like it may well get discarded.

But again, we're back to that iterative thing. But you're right, I'm always thinking of the next thing. Because that being creative is the fun part. If the day doesn't go by where I haven't done something like that, I, it's an uncomfortable day for me. At least creativity as I, I define it. Administrators are creative, but it's lost on me.

o do. Nor would anybody want [:

We have to know our craft. .

Yes. ,

that's my guest is Bill Hammack, and I'll put all your links in the show notes. Bill the book is the things we make and the YouTube channel is engineering guy,

video, engineer guy, video, . If you google aluminum cam engineering, you'll find it, you're going to find

it. , I want to close with this thought of encouragement and inspiration for the creative people listening and this idea of coming up with the idea and then needing to execute.

I often say in my intro, launching your work out into the world sometimes needs the most, attention hitting the send button, publish, publish, publish. What do we need to hear from you on that topic?

dio to have to do one a week [:

And the answer was, I have to, because if I go in there, I would write three and then tape going and tape all three and then have three weeks to write three more. And I can't go in there and look at the sound engineer and say nothing. And that's not a particularly satisfying answer, but it does tell you that you need.

to do. You need to have some scheduling. You need to have some goal that you're going to get to. And the other thing is on the opposite end as I have posted in my office here, a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I used in at the front of a book I did on the airship. And let me, I'm, I've got it right here and I'll read it to you.

ead dimming, heart dampening [:

And I find as a creator that I like that, because that means let go. Let go. Look, everything I've made has defects in it. I'm not going to tell you what they are. Go read the comments. You know what I mean? But what you want are after Is that beauty that you can achieve within that and that you're not going to get perfection and you just have to let it go.

n create that kind of beauty.[:

Well,

and to continue to put the work, of course, but yourself out there too. You do interviews like this, I talk to people who I haven't met before, I see your book on the bookshelf, and I think this sounds like a fun guy to talk to, and we've known each other for 10 minutes now, and I think we've hit it off pretty well, but we have to put ourselves out

there, don't we?

I have to correct you. I'm a radio guy. We've known each other for 11 minutes and 30 seconds. Yeah. Okay. When I get up, you're also an engineer, but so accurate. Exactly. What about I give a speech? I don't do very many of them, but I always say, look, this will be done in 52 minutes. I'm a radio guy. It'll be over.

And we have people that time it and they're like, how

did you know? It's I'll

give you a clue. It's 160 words per minute. Yeah,

I love that. And I think of my therapist friends. I see our time is up. Very good. Oh, very fun. My guest is Bill Hammack the author of the things we make bill. What a pleasure talking with you today.

Thank you. And we'll [:

watching

and listeners. Come back again next time. As I mentioned, we've stopped off in Champaign Urbana today and stamped our creative passport at the University of Illinois, but we're going to continue our around the world journey.

Talking to creators and creative practitioners everywhere about how they get inspired and how they organize their ideas. And as we've been discussing how they gain the confidence and the connections to launch their work out into the world. So until next time, I'm Mark Stinson and we're unlocking your world of creativity.

Bye for now