Train of thought

Train stations have really tall ceilings. But why? Trains themselves are just not that high. And people certainly aren’t. Bus stations don’t have tall ceilings, so why trains?

A little research reveals that it’s because of the steam. If a steam powered train were to pull into a station with low ceilings, all of that scalding hot vapor could have very serious consequences for any unfortunate humans in the immediate vicinity. Very bad for business – to say nothing of the insurance costs.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “Steam engines?? There are no steam engines!”

Exactly. Steam engines were replaced, largely by diesel engines, over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. By around fifty years ago, the steam locomotive had essentially disappeared from the scene, except as a novelty.

And yet, many train stations are still built with extremely tall ceilings. Not because there’s any real reason for it, but because they are supposed to have tall ceilings. People like the tall ceilings, the majesty of them, the “train station-ness” of them. So much nicer than crawling into a dingy little low-ceilinged bus terminal, like an ant into an anthill.

And I think it’s great. As the world around gets progressively more cyber, it’s lovely that we hold on to these little Victorian flourishes, from the computer-driven electric motor in your car’s steering wheel that simulates the feel of force from the road, to the ringing sound you hear when you pick up a telephone – decades after the last electromechanical clapper fell into disuse in this country.

Perhaps it is a sign of the immaturity of today’s computer interfaces that they do not yet have more of the subtle quality of pencil and paper, that they lack the texture and sensuous response we derive so easily from more ancient information technologies.

We are, after all, physical creatures, with brains that evolved over a vast span of time to connect in a particular way to our muscles and our senses. It is possible that the Steam Punk movement, with its strange fetishes, is responding – however incoherently – to a real need. Perhaps our computer interfaces will only truly reach maturity when they permit a sense of majesty and freedom akin to a stroll beneath those tall ceilings of our lovely train stations.

Perhaps the computer interface will have achieved maturity only when it manages to melt away seamlessly into the physical world around us, its immense added power transposed back into desk and book and paper.

2 thoughts on “Train of thought”

  1. I never thought about train station ceilings like that before. I’m a computer power user, I program in several languages even, I use RSS excessively, facebook every now and then, listen to music, follow the open source movement, use various multimedia programs, and all sorts of things on the computer. In fact one could say I’m dependent on computers (I’m trying to avoid the word ‘addicted’). Yet a couple times a year I get this feeling of utter repugnance against everything electronic, they just suddenly feel very ‘cold’. This takes anywhere from a few minutes to several days to wear off, and then it’s back to computer ‘dependence’.
    An allergic reaction?

    I wonder how the computer interface can ever melt seamlessly into the physical world. Electronics just don’t give one that satisfying feeling one gets from pulling a lever and watching it’s direct physical consequences.

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