How To? Historical Perspectives on Tool Use

Kate Smith

Remember back, if you can, to the time before you mastered a particular technique — perhaps riding a bike, driving a car, cutting vegetables or handling garden shears. Remember how, in the period before mastery, everything was somehow chaotic and overwhelming and how it now appears simply intuitive. Imagine trying to tell someone how to pick up that bike and ride. What set of instructions would you write down? Which different steps would you identify and how would you explain them? How successful or unsuccessful would your instructions be? We all know the difficulties surrounding such directions. We have all experienced them — whether it is a cookery recipe, an operative manual or a flat-pack furniture construction leaflet. Yet the failure of words in explaining a specific task or process is not new, as this essay goes on to explore.

Historically, authors of recipes, instruction manuals and technical treatises have used a variety of methods when trying to describe a particular practice. When words have failed, authors have suggested learning by trying the technique yourself or watching someone else perform the action. These recipes and treatises, this essay argues, are not just instructions. The words they use and the metaphors they create to describe particular techniques often contain evidence of the author’s relationship to, and understanding of, tools. The Tool at Hand exhibition contributes to this larger effort to understand tools by encouraging a group of artists to analyse and describe their relationships with them. In doing so it offers you, the audience, a means by which to consider technique.

From 1400 onwards, European craft practitioners (and those who were not) began writing about technique. The invention of printing in the 1460s, allowed publishers to further disseminate such texts. In England, towards the end of the seventeenth century, as the 1662 Licensing Act lapsed and controls loosened, the print trade grew rapidly. From this point on English people enjoyed a range of new printed materials. Amongst the newspapers, pamphlets, trade cards and advertisements were treatise, specifically designed to inform individuals about skilled techniques.

In the early eighteenth century, encyclopaedias further populated this genre. Authors hoped to provide patrons with information on a range of topics and tool use increasingly became situated within a wider framework of knowledge. Ephraim Chambers’ 1728 Cyclopaedia, which is widely recognised as the first modern encyclopaedia, offered audiences information on subjects as diverse as pottery production and Newtonian philosophy. Through reading the articles included in such encyclopaedia, individuals experienced a particular way of thinking about tool use. In describing pottery production for example, Chambers described how once at the wheel, with clay at hand, the potter ‘turns the Wheel round, till it has got the proper Velocity; when wetting his Hands in the Water, he bores the Cavity of the Vessel, continuing to widen it from the middle; and thus turns it into Form’.1 Not a potter himself, Chambers simply listed different stages of the process with little reference to detail or nuance. He described how the potter turned the wheel until it has reached proper velocity, but remained silent on what that velocity was and how it might be achieved and recognised. In the first half of the eighteenth century authors gave little attention to what might have been missing from such a description.

Such gaps went unnoticed by an audience largely indifferent to the practical application of the knowledge contained within these texts. Nominally targeted at those who were active in industry, authors also aimed these texts at those who had the money to buy them but had little inclination to act upon the details contained within them. In his A New and Complete Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (1766) Thomas Mortimer was keen to stipulate that the dictionary was aimed not at the ‘Rich and Affluent alone’ but also at ‘Tradesmen, Manufacturers, and Mechanics’, for perusal in their ‘leisure hours’. In order that this audience might be met the publication was sold ‘in periodical Numbers, at an easy price’ so ‘that persons of every station might be enabled to purchase a work’.2 Other writers aimed their dictionaries explicitly at affluent audiences. For instance, Malachy Postlethwayt’s pitch to ‘landed gentlemen’ perhaps illustrates more accurately for whom these authors wrote.3 Dictionaries, encyclopaedias, technical manuals and treatises on the arts and manufactures were desirable possessions, which aestheticized rather than expanded knowledge about tool use.4

By the mid-eighteenth century certain writers began to recognise the limitations of their written descriptions of particular techniques. Writing about the practices of trade and commerce in the 1750s for instance, Richard Rolt openly acknowledged the challenges of understanding processes simply by reading about them. In a period of manufacturing change, when access to useful knowledge about managing and manipulating natural resources was at a premium, Rolt underlined a central problem. He claimed that ‘Of every artificial commodity the manner in which it is made is in some measure described, though it must be remembered, that manual operations are scarce to be conveyed by any words to him that has not seen them.’5 Rolt felt that it was impossible for someone to understand manufacturing processes without seeing the actions take place.

In the last three centuries those difficulties have not disappeared. Whether trying to teach someone how to use a particular tool, or just explaining an individual’s own tool use — twentieth- and twenty-first-century writers, practitioners and artists have struggled to sum up the how and the what. An example of this can be found in any cookery book. As sociologist Richard Sennett describes it, the problem exists because as a reader ‘you can see what you have to do but are given no strategies as to how to actually go about doing it’.6 Sennett finds an exception to this problem in the cookery books written by Julia Child. Certainly the written and visual instructions on cutting included in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, anticipate each part of the action. Child, Bertholle and Beck describe how when slicing round objects the cook needs to cut ‘straight down, at a right angle to board, with a quick stroke of the knife blade, pushing the potato slice away from the potato as you hit the board.’7 The instructions enable the learner to recognise what they are experiencing and how they should react. They describe the multiple gestures that through practice will merge into one action. Nevertheless, despite such a detailed account of cutting, cookery writers continue to write and describe suggesting that the technique (or rather a description of the technique) can never be complete but rather continues to evolve.

Why then is it so difficult to describe tool use? Why is showing others how to use particular tools so complex? Once a particular technique is learned it becomes innate, impossible to make explicit. Tool use is at the centre of that difficulty as the ideas, knowledge and muscle memory, which make up technique often work in tandem with tools. Highly skilled practitioners wield tools seemingly effortlessly. Working with tools we have all handled — the contractor’s disposable saw, the paper knife — David Gates and Caroline Slotte fluently demonstrate their hard-won agility. Nevertheless, skilled work and interrogating skilled work is anything but easy. In viewing the pieces and their accompanying videos in The Tool at Hand exhibition, it is important to remember the historic difficulty societies and individuals have experienced in trying to articulate their understanding of tool use. Obviously, these pieces and videos are not an attempt at how-to. They do not attempt to teach but they do wrestle with a similar problem — the difficulties of trying to describe and talk about tool use and relationships to tools. In her video, Ndidi Ekubia uses the term ‘rhythm’ to explore both the psychological and physical state required to enact her practice and her relationship to tools. David Clarke underlines the importance of irreverently using tools in order to explore their boundaries. It is important to listen closely to the descriptions and comments that the artists offer. Mark the language they use and the metaphors they employ. Note their pauses and the silences within their descriptions. Look closely at the pieces themselves. This exhibition offers you a very particular ‘how-to’ — ‘how-to’ begin to think about tool use.

Kate Smith
Department of History
University College London

1 Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia: or, an universal dictionary of arts and science (London, 1728), p. 852.
2 See the ‘Advertisement’ following the frontispiece in volume one. Thomas Mortimer, A New and Complete Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (London, 1766).
3 Malachy Postlethwayt, The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. Vol. 1 (2nd edn, London, 1757), p. vi.
4 Maxine Berg, ‘The Genesis of “Useful Knowledge”’, History of Science, xlv (2007), p. 127.
5 See the ‘Preface’ in Rolt, A New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (London, 1756).
6 Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 182.
7 Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (London: Penguin Books, 2009), p. 21.