Superbly designed functionality


The steel “sanitary tee” shown to your left carried the waste from my house's kitchen sink and clothes washer for 57 years. I am so struck by its beauty and its importance to the history of this house that I’m going to keep it somewhere, if only in the crawlspace. There is simply nothing more gorgeous than superbly designed functionality, especially in an object that has been on the job for generations. As I sit gazing at my tee, I think of the plumber who installed it, what a different world he inhabited in 1955, and what a different trade he practiced.


There were no plastic plumbing pipes back then, only steel and copper for water; steel, cast iron, and concrete for waste. Much of the steel pipe had to be cut and threaded at the jobsite. I sometimes helped my father do this. The cast iron fittings weren’t threaded, and had to be sealed with oakum that was first driven into the joint and then covered with molten lead poured from a dipper. I sometimes helped my father do this as well. I didn't realize that I was seeing the end of an era.


Today, I laboriously removed lead and oakum from where a steel pipe entered such a fitting. I then put a rubber seal onto the end of a new ABS plastic pipe, inserted the new pipe into the fitting, drove the seal snug with a hammer, and voilà, I was done.  The old ways and old materials are sometimes beautiful, but the new ones are usually better, and so it is that I cast my vote for the new even while remembering the old with respect and affection. After all, the fitting in the photo served the people who lived in this house for a lot of years.

“…superbly designed functionality...” One argument against the existence of a divine creator is that we ourselves are so poorly designed that we start falling apart as soon as we reach physical maturity. If the eye—as many claim—is so superbly engineered that only a super smart deity could have created it, why are we all wearing glasses?

16 comments:

Beau's Mom said...

As I was reading, I had to adjust my glasses so that the bifocal was correctly equidistant between the pupils. I had to adjust the light because I've had a headache for two months. It was hard to type a response due to a 'trigger finger'. For those unfamiliar, it is when the third finger starts permanently bending into the palm of the hand.....

What were you saying about superbly designed functionality?

kj said...

Snow, reading this is sheer joy. How wonderful. I am so glad for you.

You are a super teacher explaining these pipes. The comparison in weight is night and day, right?

So you did it. xo
And the quote at the end is perfect. Pipes and principles.

So what's next?

Love
kj

kylie said...

i have collected similar bits of functional beauty at times, one was set of office trays. they eventually got broken and thrown away but how much more beautiful than the plastic version. the other was a card filing box, also timber. i still have that one :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I wouldn't have thought of it as beautiful but you make a good point for considering it so.

Ed Pilolla said...

beautiful-old reliable pipe. hope you are feeling fine after a major project.

PhilipH said...

Snowy, you've just transported me to 1949. Smack bang through the space-time continuum, to when I began my first job - as an apprentice plumber!
So true! No plastic plumbing in those days, no copper either; at least not in my builder's yard.
Mainly LEAD pipework, which was a really skilled job making joints, involving "belling out" parts of the pipe and then "wiping" a white metal joint around it using molten metal and a "mole-skin" pad.
Tapping and cutting threads on the iron/steel pipework was also a job that took me ages to perfect.
Hard work, poorly paid as an apprentice (just 30 shilling a week) with 20 shillings going straight to my mother each Friday.
After six months "probation" I was summoned to the boss's office and asked to sign the papers for a seven year apprenticeship. I declined - much to the angry annoyance of Mr. A.C. Whyte, the boss.
Sometimes I think it was a big mistake not to carry on. Nowadays, heating and plumbing "engineers" command pretty high fees!
I also agree about the "heavenly engineering" too. What a mess "he" made of the job.

Marion said...

Holy, holy, holy, beautiful pipe...xo

Snowbrush said...

"Holy, holy, holy, beautiful pipe...xo"

YES, YES, YES!!! You've got it. A belief in the supernatural is in no way necessary to a feeling of worshipful awe. When spiritual/religious people say that the life of an atheist necessarily is necessarily lacking in depth, sensitivity, and aesthetic wonder, I look at their lives, and I then look at my own life, and I think that, well, probably not. I seem to get high a lot easier than most of them do, and I don't mean just on drugs.

"What were you saying about superbly designed functionality?"

Something about built-in obsolescence caused by a snake talking a woman who didn't know good from evil into eating some fruit. This resulted in God becoming very, very, extremely very angry and cursing not only every human being's eyes from that point onward, but also my blue heeler's eyes (she's blind). It was an example of divine justice that was later offset by divine compassion when God sent his only son (who was one-third God, yet 100% God) to die on the cross for everyones' sins (God either can't or won't forgive without somebody dying), everyone that is who has faith and asks for forgiveness, which clearly means that you and I are screwed, but, boy, will we ever be sorry when we find out that we were WRONG.

"The comparison in weight is night and day, right?"

Yes, a four-foot section of cast iron drain line weighs sixty pounds (27 kilograms), but I didn't mention the weight issue because I didn't want to write a treatise. My next project will be more plumbing.

"i have collected similar bits of functional beauty at times, one was set of office trays. they eventually got broken and thrown away but how much more beautiful than the plastic version."

Yes, you're right, much has been lost aesthetically (I pity modern children because all their toys are plastic), but advancements are seldom an improvement in every way.

"I wouldn't have thought of it as beautiful but you make a good point for considering it so."

Maybe if you went to a lumber company, and just looked at the many plumbing fittings one at a time as if you were in an art gallery, while thinking about how much easier your life is because of such things...

"After six months "probation" I was summoned to the boss's office and asked to sign the papers for a seven year apprenticeship."

Wow! I have never been through any formal apprenticeship but picked up some things from my father--a remodeler and repairman--and a good bit more from books and experience, but as far as I know, four years is standard here for an apprenticeship. I was born in '49, and I envy you your longer memory of events. There's a richness in that sort of thing that young people can't appreciate. One of my embarrassing memories of working with my father was being sent to the store for the first time for various male and female plumbing fittings. I could hardly believe my ears, and I was just sure the clerk was going to look at me like I was an idiot, but of course he didn't.

All Consuming said...

Would you like me to make it into a necklace for you? Or a brooch?

I'd actually hang it on the wall, I completely get why you feel that way about it. x

All Consuming said...

Would you like me to make it into a necklace for you? Or a brooch?

I'd actually hang it on the wall, I completely get why you feel that way about it. x

The Blog Fodder said...

What a great post and did it bring back memories, too. You are right about that fitting and the suggestion to clean it up and put it in a mounting box is just right.
My uncle was a plumber, started his business the year you were born, I think. I remember the cast iron sewer pipes and the iron water pipes. His oldest son took the business over and is almost ready to retire, handing it off to his son and son-in-law. Serious changes over the years, for sure. And I too like the new stuff better.

Snowbrush said...

"I'd actually hang it on the wall..."

Marry me, my darling. My wife doesn't understand me the way you do. I just know she won't be thrilled to have a well-used sanitary tee hanging on the wall because she wasn't thrilled about my hammer collection or even my car tag collection, although she did say yes to the fedora collection.

"His oldest son took the business over and is almost ready to retire, handing it off to his son and son-in-law."

Yes, there are businesses here that are called "_____ and Sons." Here in the U.S., the government will probably raise the retirement age to the upper 60s within the next several years. I don't know if if any of those Congressmen and Senators who think this is such a great idea know or care that some jobs are too tough on the body for a person to hold out that long. Just try to envision a 67 year old roofer, plumber, concrete finisher, or flooring installer.

ladyfi said...

That is a thing of elegant beauty indeed!

All Consuming said...

"Marry me, my darling. My wife doesn't understand me the way you do." - Hahahahaha, hey, she lets you have the fedora collection, which is something. x

Helen said...

I am thoroughly impressed with the colors of this 'artifact.' (yes, you do look happy in the photo Peggy snapped) ...

** I believe the house my sisters and I were standing in front of was faux brick. We lived in rural Midwest! Not too many could have afforded the real thing. The hip scar was carved by a surgeon who perfected the 'mini-incision' technique .. taught it to other surgeons around the world. The right hip replacement in 2008 - mini-incision as well. It's the way they're done now. (gruesome nonetheless)

Winifred said...

You could always have it framed and hang it as modern art!

The only things that seem better nowadays are tellys and cars. Everything else is total pants. Washers and tumble driers don't seem to last long at all no matter how much you pay for them.