July 27, 2014

Old Machine Tools: Elegant Geometries

I feel a tremendous aesthetic satisfaction looking at old machine tools, machines for shaping metal used for machine parts, or at many other machines for that matter. Here we see parts that all have specific purposes, but looked at with an eye that sees perfectly balanced combinations of shapes, full of surprising juxtapositions, they are like pieces of sculpture. A round notched wheel is the lowest layer of other low circular forms, which are broken by small columns, one of which seems almost figural. A friend of mine collects old machine tools (sorry, I forgot to ask dates, but I imagine late 19th to early 20th century) and I had a happy time photographing these details on a recent visit.

I love the tall openings for the gear's teeth. I have no idea why they are so tall, but looking at them I kept thinking of cathedrals. And then there are those two odd protruding cylinders at the lower right, topped with red, little exclamations.

These first three photos are the same machine, each view of it different. Cylindrical shapes, full and rich, anchor each side of a long flat rectangle.

These dramatic round volumes, which I assume once held belts to move the machine, although motionless, seem to be spinning.

An arrow, an arched volume, a flat golden blade: to me a mystery, and perfect.

Another circle of a very different sort, with regular openings enlivened by random dark constellations.

And then there are the handles, so beautiful with their swelling form, whether rising from a bar....

....or from a round wheel.

The rounded forms contrasting with the squarish ones surrounding them delighted me; it looks like a comic opera.

Then there's this small wheel with one of those beautiful bulbous handles, and a narrower version below, and a disk, and a pencil-like form: an odd collection and another that amuses me. When I think of the current handles I have around me, on my table saw or refrigerator or on my car, nothing comes close to the rich design of these. Of course the patina of age, the sense of nostalgia, of harking back to a different time, comes with looking at these old machines. And, they are cleaned and polished into perfect condition. I haven't been in a modern machine tool factory and wonder if the contemporary machines have any of this same beauty.

This silvery sphere caught my attention, looking so small and bright on the black metal. I had thought it was some kind of switch, but being that these machines might not have been powered by electricity, that couldn't be it. I did find out that it was a screw-in cap plugging a hole through which oil would be added (if I'm remembering it correctly). Whatever its use, it has a perky presence.

There are beautiful and clear relationships in this detail: the vertical and horizontal bars, the notched openings playing against the raised hexagonal bolt, and all these straight lines held up by a curved ruler. And yes, you are right if you think it might be one of my paintings, for here is what I love about machines, the fascinating juxtapositions of forms that are there when you look closely. I recently told someone that I have tried pure abstraction in my painting a couple of times, but I never could come up with the inventive and varied compositions that I find in agricultural machinery. Because of their function, machines have marvelous form.


  1. Visually stunning and thoughtful. Great post Altoon.

  2. I share your fondness for the beauty of these utilitarian objects. I love the sheen and irregularity of the worn metal and the mix of geometries they present.

  3. Thanks so much for the comments, Deborah and Tamar. I'm glad I'm not alone in finding beauty here.

  4. Great post! I have and operate a lathe similar to this.

    1. Thanks, Bernard. I bet you enjoy using that lathe.

  5. I love the aesthetics of old tools, too. My friend Don takes some cool photos of historic factories, you might want to check. http://www.donschroder.com/Historical-Sites/Lonaconing-Silk-Mill/LSM-2014/

    1. Thanks for the link, annemichael, the photos are wonderful.