Maybe it was because of The Jetsons back in the early 1960s.
Animators envisioning a high-tech future with robot maids, flying cars, computer-controlled kitchens, and video conferencing stuck with an old, established technology when it came to George Jetson’s career. He worked for Spacely Space Sprockets – a company clearly in the gear-making industry, competing against their underhanded rivals, Cogswell’s Cosmic Cogs.
Sure, the show didn’t get everything right – George pressed the same button hundreds of times a day, something that clearly could have been automated with a Fanuc robot and a few lines of code – but that psychological linkage of gears with high technology never really faded.
Just look at your tablet or cell phone. Need to connect to a different WiFi network or shut off Bluetooth? You’ll have to click on the gear icon for Apple or Android systems. Microsoft began use the cog symbol to represent a computer’s settings with Windows 95. Type the word “gears” into Google, and you’ll get 344 million hits, including millions of images. These aren’t nostalgic looks into pre-Industrial Age components. Gears are the modern symbol for controlling the inner workings of cutting-edge technology, despite mobile devices generally containing no moving parts.
Pretty good for a technology that’s been around for more than 24 centuries.
Whether it was the gear systems that enabled windmills to mechanize parts of agriculture more than 1,500 years ago, geared watches and clocks that replaced looking at the sun’s position to tell time, or Industrial Revolution-era machine tools that used gear systems for power transmission, cogs and sprockets have related to human advancement for millennia.
You don’t see steam pumps getting much love from the design world these days, and I doubt many user-experience designers could even identify a pulley system. The decision to use cogs to represent computer settings was probably random; a visual designer needed something, and cogs are round and fairly easy to draw. Whoever’s decision it was, they were on to something.
Gears are highly technical, and getting more capable as cutting technologies, material science, and design tools advance. Major automakers are producing 10-speed automatic transmissions, fitting those extra gears into the same amount of space that used to house 4-to-6 speeds. Quality tolerances for gear teeth have fallen into the micron range as systems have gotten more precise.
At Gear Expo 2017 (www.gearexpo.com) in Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 24-27, 2017, attendees will get to see exactly how gears have advanced. Education sessions will focus on heat-treatment techniques that enhance the performances of gear systems and instructions on how to decipher a gear quality inspection report.
If you attend, keep an eye out for George Jetson or Cosmo Spacely, and ask them why we don’t have those flying cars yet. I’m betting the answer is going to have something to do with the need to further develop gear, sprocket, and cog technologies.