Thursday, February 09, 2006

LEGO difference engine

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Charles Babbage's difference engine in Science Museum. And today I found out that Andy Carol has built a similar thing, using LEGO. These things always make me smile. I used to play a lot with LEGO as a kid. But I never felt like building difference engines or harpsichords out of them, though. (EDIT: there's one made of Meccano as well...)

These small building blocks offer limitless possibilities, and while the basic blocks are - well, "blocky", the creative and imaginative minds of children will smoothen out the rough edges and turn the lumps of cubes into sleek spaceships, ray-guns and supercars, houses, castles and treasure chests.

A friend of mine was looking for a birthday present for a nephew of hers, and I suggested LEGO. Unfortunately it seems that all they have in local toy shops were some LEGO Bionic monsters and such. What happened to the sets of basic blocks and the more generic cars, ships, planes etc.? If I wanted teenage idiot ninja mutants I would probably go and get them, but since when did LEGO get involved in this shoot-explode-bang-bang ADHD-inducing no-concentration-what-so-ever -lunacy?

The great thing about the old sets was that you would build the "intended" thing, a plane or a car, just once. Then you'd take the thing apart, and add the pieces to your big box of LEGO, where they would get a new life. As long as the blocks were generic enough, and could serve many purposes. The idea was always in the blocks, not in the pre-determined particular way of putting them together to form the thing in the cover of the box. That's why LEGO was always such a perfect gift, it could never fail. Sometimes there were exciting special parts in the boxes, that would be adopted for something completely different just seconds after the original model was built. The propeller was soon stripped of its wings, because the rest of the part looked like a jet, and jet engines are cooler than propellers. Antennas would be used as swords for LEGO men. Roof tiles became spoilers for supercars.

To all the LEGO people out there: don't ruin the whole idea, stop pre-determining and overdefining the sets, blocks and designs.

(Pics: Andy Carol & Henry Lim)

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