Friday, March 2, 2012

Joe Kaufman's Big Book About How Things Work

Joe Kaufman's Big Book About How Things Work - front cover

I wasn't even sure what I had in my hands when I found Joe Kaufman's Big Book About How Things Work at Savers in Vegas, but I instantly recognized the style of the book as being the same as the style of my beloved childhood human-body book, which I mentally refer to to this day. Seriously, if you tell me anything about the immune system, I still visualize a bunch of little white blood droplets looking very angry on their way to battle. A little web research reveals that that book, now lost to me, must have been Joe Kaufman's Big Book About the Human Body or the earlier version Joe Kaufman's How We are Born, How We Grow, How Our Bodies Work, and How We Learn.

Anyway, this guy is just so fantastic. There is virtually no information about author-illustrator Joe Kaufman online, but according to the copyright notice inside the book he was born in 1911, so he's either 100 years old or...not. Suffice it to say, this book is just a wonderful, charming and funny introduction to mechanical engineering and gadgets and applied science, and so help me I've learned a lot just in the last 24 hours of owning this book!

No lie, Jackson had his first-ever hissy-fit at the airport when they took his stroller away to put it in the cargo hold. He was bereft, but I whipped out this book (which I was carrying with me because my suitcase full of Savers loot had hit the 50 lb. weight limit), and I showed him this cutaway of a passenger plane, and suddenly he was all better. "Stroller under plane? Stroller under plane."
Elevators and escalators explained, with help from a few 1970s haircuts and outfits. This book was originally published in 1971 as Joe Kaufman's What Makes It Go? What Makes It Work? What Makes It Fly? What Makes It Float? This version is the retitled 1987 reprint. There is still very much the flavor of 1971 in the attitude and illustrations, so I assume it wasn't too dramatically revised.

"Guess which one of these astronauts was the first man to step on the moon?"

Here is the obviously Space Race-influenced introduction to the book:

A NOTE TO PARENTS: This book was designed to help answer one of the most frequently asked questions of childhood--"What makes it work?" It is a basic introduction to the mechanics, and the concepts behind the mechanics, of a variety of appliances, machines, and vehicles. Although it was designed primarily for young readers from six to ten, older children and adults will surely find much to learn and enjoy. In fact, the entire family can share many exciting and rewarding hours studying the great ideas of inventors of the past as they are incorporated into the things we use today. We hope the book will awaken the child's interest in the roles science and technology play in giving us the things we take for granted, and perhaps encourage him to go on to more detailed works in areas of particular interest. It may also be a beginning for those who will one day make the discoveries that lie ahead.

Two young ladies playing dress-up go head-to-head in the great domestic war over electric versus gas stoves.
Look at this cuckoo collection of cuckoo clocks!
Embarrassing confession: At first thought these guys were the Three Stooges, but no, that's Chico, Harpo (on the harp) and Groucho Marx demonstrating three musical instruments. (Tuba, clarinet and harmonica are explained on the next page, with no further assistance from the Marx brothers.)
Example four on the tape recorder uses page: "A tape recorder is useful to international spies...for recording important diplomatic secrets." 
I just think the kaleidoscope images are beautiful, and so precise!
"Oh wow! the FUTURE" pretty much predicts the iPad and ubiquitous personal computing. Joe Kaufman wins!
Joe Kaufman's Big Book About How Things Work - back cover, with a few more cute illustrations


  1. Thanks for putting this up, I loved this book as a kid and I think I found one on Ebay. It's a little out of date on the tech side but I hope my daughter will love it too.


  2. Really cool!
    Had this book as a child, loved to look at the pictures for hours...
    Now my 5 year old daughter is doing the same!
    Thanks for this lovely post, and cheers from Israel! :)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I've been wanting to find a copy of my old How Things Work Book... I think this might be it. Does it have a page with a vacuum cleaner and a lady beating a rug?