Machines --Tools -- Instruments



You use hundreds of devices every day without paying much attention to them. These simple gadgets serve you in various ways, from brewing your morning coffee to transporting you to work on time. I define objects like these that perform specific functions as machines because they only perform one primary task. For example, the coffee maker makes coffee and doesn't cook an omelet or bring in the morning newspaper. Whatever form of transportation you use to start your day is also a machine that delivers you with minimal fanfare, whether you take a train, a bus, or your car.

Each machine performs a specific function and either fills that need or it doesn't. A vending machine, for example, either delivers your choice when presented with the requisite funds -- or it fails. This machine could be defective, sold out, or simply lying. In any case, the intended function and implied contract are clear.

Having a single function with a pass/fail outcome is the characteristic defining machines and separating them from the other two categories we will consider next


While machines perform specific tasks, tools do nothing at all until you use them with specific intent. For example, a hammer is helpful if it empowers you to build a house. By itself and without human input, even the most well-designed hammer performs no function. Anyone can successfully operate a machine, but working with tools requires skill.

The level of skill can vary greatly. My carpentry, for example, is dismal compared with anyone competent. Though our abilities will differ, we each use tools to expand our capabilities in fundamental ways.

My grandfather used these tools as a cabinet maker in England over 100 years ago. After emigrating to the United States, he taught me that the secret of working with tools was to let the tool do the work. And to cut a board in half, make a thin, straight line. Then cut the line in half. I inherited some of his wisdom, but unfortunately, not his skills.



The third category includes devices that can expand our capabilities, vision, and impact. For example, a scalpel can empower a surgeon to perform functions otherwise impossible and even save a life.

Musical instruments come to mind immediately and exemplify what I mean by this category. No musician other than a vocalist could perform without the capabilities of a talented  instrument maker. It is these skills that make specific examples highly prized.


A small group of aircraft instruments is all that's required to tell a skilled pilot which way is up. Then, another separate collection tells the pilot which way is Cleveland. This combination expands awareness, allowing us to fly safely and arrive where we intend. In this case, instruments create a reality that is more useful and even more accurate than the view from the cockpit window.

We may need to know if this bus goes to Main Street or whether that train will take us to Chicago. But we would not ask at a car dealership if this Corvette goes to California. The difference is the level of our involvement. Machines do not involve us at all and provide services. Tools require our participation and can expand our capabilities. Instruments develop our creative ability to significantly alter what we and others perceive.

The Computer

We relate to computers in all three levels of interaction. As business machines, computers perform tedious tasks associated with printing payroll checks and bills. Not unlike our can opener and vending machine examples, in this configuration, computers either perform as expected or they do not.


In this configuration, computers either work correctly or they fail. We could even use the term accountant power to measure how many accountants it would take to match a particular computer -- just as horsepower tells us how many horses it would take to equal the engine in your car.

Computers emerged as powerful tools with the onset of the personal computer revolution. An entire room full of clerks crafting balance statements can't equal the flexible power of a single spreadsheet. The ability to see and predict the effects of changing dynamics gives the computer-powered executive an invaluable what-if view of the future. 

Word processing became an instant success with writers everywhere. The ability to compose and edit our work on computer screens was a significant advantage over typewritten manuscripts, which had to be endlessly recopied as the final communication evolved.

CGI or Computer Generated Image has become standard film terminology for digital creation. The commercial success of this field creates opportunities for contemporary artists, but the name CGI is unfortunate. We would not, for example, refer to the Mona Lisa as a Paintbrush Generated Image. Art is art, whether the artist uses computer or paintbrush.


The Camera

How should we classify the camera? Photography serves us in all three areas. The actual use pattern depends on the user, not the device itself. Some cameras are specially equipped for specific applications, but the primary designation as machine, tool, or instrument relies on the photographer's objective.

As a time machine, photographs capture historical moments, preserving our past. We were there/then on vacation, graduating, getting married, and other milestones with the camera creating a visual record.

This most common use of cameras can do more than capture time and often provides documentation and beautiful images as well.


Photographic documentation is often the main objective, preserving visual information vital to forensic and similar needs. As a result, law enforcement and historic preservation depend on the camera as an essential tool.

A camera could just as easily verify an insurance claim or provide a visual inventory of your home.


One of my favorites is this photo of trees with a storm brewing in the background. Designating a camera as a creative instrument depends entirely on the photographer's intent. The resulting impression is a function of the photographer's skills, abilities, and personal vision.

MHT-1   Mount Horeb Trees S

The Result

These three categories are all very interesting, but what's the point? First, we separated stuff into three convenient categories, then proceeded to show that the lines are blurred. When does a photographer capturing a family vacation become a creative photographer sharing a beautiful image? Or when does a person simply working with spreadsheets transition into a wizard with unlimited ability to forecast a future business environment?

Recently my friend Ann took me to a doctor's appointment in her car. Nothing could be more machine oriented than simply going from Point A to Point B with minimal fuss. For Ann, however, this was more than a simple taxi service. We are friends, and Ann is consistently helping me with many issues concerning my cancer restrictions. As an integral part of my overall healing process, Ann is instrumental, contributing much more than any service.

On the way to my appointment, we encountered a construction zone. We had been discussing the ideas that would become the article I'm sharing with you now, as we observed this disgruntled employee. He had all the functionality of the sign he was holding and not much else. While this person wasn't exactly a machine, he could be entirely replaced by one. Instead, he could just as easily see his role as protecting the workers who are repairing the road ahead and directing us to the most efficient means for routing around the problem.


Without his warning, the workers would be in danger. Without his direction, we might have taken a wrong turn into a dead end, gotten lost, and possibly missed my appointment. Detour Man served a critical event that day, but his attitude suggested that he saw his job as no more than holding the sign and getting to the end of his shift.

I'll conclude with this quote from Bud Foote, interviewed elsewhere...

"There is a wonderful story about Sir Christopher Wren, who built St. Paul's Cathedral in London. He is reported to have walked up to three men cutting stone for the cathedral and asked them what they were doing. The first said he was earning a living, the second said he was cutting stone, and the third said, 'I am helping Sir Christopher Wren to build this great cathedral.'"

Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In