dark oily machinery
[ This photo is in the public domain. ]

On Reading “The Ablation Wheel: A History”

I re-read Emilia Weber’s The Ablation Wheel: A History on the train from Philadelphia to Washington, during our vacation in 2012. I remember the pages being so cold that I had to lick my fingertips to turn them; I remember pausing at the sentence that begins Lebovics’ handwriting is distinctive, so I could watch a tiny, dry snowflake, one of a flurry, bounce off my window. The falling snow and the snow piled between the road and the tracks deadened the sound of the train’s engine and the engines of the cars on the highway beside us, and, despite the cold, I calmed.

I was reading the second chapter, in which Weber gives us the inventor observing hundreds of primitive wheels, drawing meticulous plans of them, and bringing those plans together in his own design, which eliminated the primitive machines’ irrationalities; she argues that Lebovics’ two masterstrokes were the wheel’s characteristically modern, stark, clean silhouette, and his realization that a wheel better suited to the human body would be far more efficient. His handwriting comes up because Lebovic noted in his diary that he often worked en route. That fact explained the obscure pencil skitterings Weber had seen across many of his carefully composed diagrams: the scrawls were caused by his coach hitting bumps or ditches. Those unwanted lines allowed her to date the diagrams precisely, and that allowed her to date important developments in the progress of the wheel’s design.

The handwriting passage ends with a description of Lebovics sitting in his coach. Something in this image—Lebovics at work, a quill in one hand and the ends of his beard in the other, praying that his driver would miss the next ditch or hump—something in the idea of Lebovics, conscientious even as his hand bounced wildly out of control, maculating his otherwise perfect diagrams—I was calmed by the snow and the quiet, yes, but then this image counteracted my calm by hollowing me out entirely, as I knew I would be hollowed eventually, because I’m struck this way every time I read the book, as if my stomach’s been tapped and found empty, as if I’m winded, or hungry and dyspeptic, or exhausted and withdrawn amid a crowd of people who expect me to have fun and laugh along even though I don’t know them at all.

I’ve never known why. I’m not gripped by what last decade’s reviewers called Weber’s translucent prose, magisterial command of the scholarship, and provocative argument about the ablation wheel’s origins, development, uses, and decline. I’m not interested in Lebovics’ ablation wheels for their own sake. I’ve only seen one—a broken machine on display at the South Australian Museum—and the plaque on the wall doesn’t even tell visitors what it is. So today, while I have some time to think and to write, I’m determined to explain this feeling to myself. My husband thought he could help me by proposing that it was caused by some conjunction of the physical objects with my own meditations on the history, properties, purposes, and mechanisms of those objects. But how can I start with an abstraction? Better to think about the feeling, and when it strikes me, which is when I’m reading or thinking about The Ablation Wheel: A History.


On my first reading, I was at home, drinking ginger-honey tea to recover from the flu. I had to stay home from the practice—nobody wants to take their child to see a coughing paediatrician. My husband had given me The Ablation Wheel two weeks before, just after its release (he enjoys being married to an amateur historian almost as much as being married to a professional doctor). I lay on the couch, in the first full sunlight we’d had for weeks, and started to read.

My nose was blocked, but I could still smell my shirt, which almost glowed. I’d run a load of white laundry through the machine on Thursday, when I was so ill that simply standing up made me woozy, and I’d used too much bleach; the whole load of whites was affected, but nothing smelled as much as that shirt. Bleach seemed to drip into my nose every time I moved, every time I turned a page, and with every notional drop the dry skin at the corners of my nostrils would tingle a little, as if about to burn.

That day, I was fascinated by Weber’s first chapter, on the modern wheel’s social context: Lebovics’ invention was possible only because of industrialization, electrification, widespread changes in the patterns of human labour, and the many varieties of primitive ablation wheels.  The primitive wheels were powered by horse-mills or watermills, so they were owned by the mill-owners who owned the animals or water-rights needed to run them. No matter what the power source, though, the human, his implements, and his animals lived together. There was no separation of home, workplace, and tools. Weber’s book made the foreignness clear to me: I sat on my couch, coddled, far from my little patients and the toy stethoscopes they played with while I prodded their bellies and listened for scratches in their lungs; my husband went to yoga, made dinners and lunches, did laundry without bleaching the air. What must it have been like to live with your home as your workplace, or an animal as your source of power? Could I imagine myself in their place?

The book’s conclusion matches the first chapter perfectly. The integrated world of man, beast and machine disappeared because the primitive wheels couldn’t compete with Lebovics’ modern ablation wheel, run by humans and motors rather than horses or water. Weber’s last chapter shows that the world of the modern ablation wheel disappeared just as quickly with the introduction of the automated ablation conglomerates. Lebovics’ modern ablation wheels had made the primitive wheels anachronisms, and the conglomerates did the same to the modern wheels, as well as the economies that those wheels drove. The changes dizzied me. I finished yet another cup of ginger-honey tea and, instead of going back to re-read my notes and important passages, the dog and I played tug-of-war with his new toy, a hollow rubber ball.

Of course, from our perspective, it seems inevitable that the primitive wheels would be superseded by the Lebovics wheel, and that the Lebovics wheels would be superseded in turn. But what about those who had laboured on those wheels? The old men who’d spent their lives in them had become as specialized as any human labourer has ever been. They attended to the wheel’s crank; or cleaned, drop by drop, the uric effluent; some, their left hands twisted into a grotesque claw by long acclimation to the machine, inserted their arm into the ablative ingress like a key into its lock. These jobs were handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and when the automated conglomerates made their labour unnecessary, whole families emerged from the wheels mangled and unemployable. And what would I do? If some machine replaced me, if some robot paediatrician rendered me useless, what would I do?

My stomach feels hollower now than when I started writing. Is feeling caused by the impossible gaps between me and the men who lived with their animals, between me and those who laboured on the modern wheels? In those gaps, between the actually anachronized horse-mill owner, whose primitive wheel instantly became a useless block of wood and iron, and me, reliant on the ablation conglomerates, between the two of us, between whom there can be nothing, I see Lebovics sitting in his unstable coach, ruling lines or sketching the curve of his new, rational wheel.


The sun’s glare on my laptop’s screen reminds me of a freight train that passed by our cold train carriage; the post-snow sunlight reflected from its coloured cars onto The Ablation Wheel‘s pages; a soft red, then blue, then, between the carriages, a yellow flickered briefly—I was reminded, then, for a quarter-second at a time, of my first, couch-bound, sunny reading of the book—before the soft red returned. Did Lebovics see light like that on his diagrams? He could not of course, have experienced a freight-train. But he might have seen the light filtered by the green of England’s forests, or the strange, bright yellow of a storm-expectant evening, when the clouds concentrate the setting sun.

Immediately after the freight train’s last carriage had passed, the young conductor asked for my ticket. I scrolled through my apps, opened the PDF viewer, and showed him the eticket on my phone. He held out his own device, scanned the QR square, accepted his machine’s judgment, and caressed its screen with his long, fascinating fingers; he caught me staring at them, said “Thank you, Ms. Inouye,” and smiled at me kindly. I blushed slightly, put the book down, and leaned my head on my husband’s shoulder. His appley breath comforted me then, and the memory comforts me now.


Another memorable detail from my first, bleach-infused reading comes from the book’s middle chapters, which describe the labourers’ self-understanding. They were always recruited from the very poorest and least educated; their families hadn’t taken part in public life for generations, if ever. But the ablationists’ work on the new machine gave them a reason for pride: in the dexterity needed to grease the crank as it plunged towards the uric pit and then again as it rose with the wheel’s turn; in the speed and rhythm required to clean the effluent spattered by the crank while avoiding the ablation blades that clattered below the pistons; even in the embodied specialization of the handsmen, who stimulated the materials with their left hand. The rich and middle classes were disgusted by the wheels; some revolutionaries and luddites destroyed them. But those who laboured on the wheel made sure it never stopped spinning. They saw a purpose in their work, and their suffering; if nothing else, the possible, mythical, better life for the children.

The arrival of the conglomerates proved the workers’ hopes hollow, but even now I find myself hoping that they suffered for a reason. Is this the feeling, then? Pity for the families thrown out of work by the conglomerates, mixed with hope that my own life and world will mean more than that? I consider my daughter, happy and safe, her mother a doctor, her father a professor. She’ll have the best schools, the best support, the best chance. And my pity is as real as the cramps in my stomach.

But anyone who reads Weber will feel for those who suffer, be glad for their own comforts, and hope for their children. I’m not unique. And yet no reviewer seems to have had anything like my response to the book; nobody has mentioned the book causing them to feel emptiness and withdrawal. Leftist professors point to the suffering workers; libertarian reviewers point to Lebovics’ entrepreneurial genius; liberal intellectuals point to the progress made thanks to the modern wheel and the conglomerates that followed it. Yes, they all feel pity, and they all wax hopeful, but none of them are winded or sickened. The historical gap, the pity and hope, these alone don’t explain my feeling.


Before I read Weber, I knew what went into the modern ablation wheels and what they produced (metals from ore, rubber from latex coagulum, pottage from peeled yams…). I knew that most modern wheels were found in the colonies, the poorest regions of Eastern Europe, or impoverished rural areas in the Americas. But I hadn’t known how great a role the wheel played in the past century’s history.

Lebovics had designed the machine to be easily adaptable, and the colonized peoples were particularly successful in their adaptations. The Igbo altered the machine’s spin so its surplus energy could run a second, smaller wheel, which helped them prepare awaị much more quickly. Everyone enjoyed the extra food, so the wheel benefited the family or village, and the British installed more wheels, which increased food production, which allowed more people to work in the wheels, and so on. This pattern was repeated all over the continent: the peoples of the Congo adapted the wheel to the production of rubber; the peoples of the south perfected it as a tool for mining, and so on. If you squint, it looks like a virtuous cycle.

I just remembered, for no good reason—I’m at my desk in Camberwell, my light-pink painted fingernails tapping at the keyboard, the a, s, d, and ctrl decals scratched off because of my imperfect posture—that I had, in the cold carriage, seen a van driving along the highway beside the train tracks. Through its rear window, I saw the bent, soft-foam covered metal that accompanies human helplessness; the curved handles of walking sticks, wheelchairs, and crutches. The van’s driver was obviously employed to move the aged or disabled. I remember thinking that only a saint could cope with end-of-life care, which has all the drawbacks of paediatrics but none of the hopefulness that comes from tending to the very young. And, I thought, the shape of those handles probably matched some of the scribbles Lebovics had made as his coach careened across an unsealed road and malformed Us or Cs sprawled across his pristine diagrams.

The machine, or at least Weber’s presentation of it, seems to encourage these conjunctions—between crutch handles and Lebovics’ diagrams, between these and the wheel’s impact on colonization. But why? Is it just a link between saintliness, genius, and economic growth? Did Lebovics, sitting in his carriage, think about the consequences of his invention? Did he know that his drafting board could be made more stable by coach-wheels covered by tires of Congo rubber? Did he imagine that his invention might improve the mining process and reduce the cost of his pocket-watch, with its high-quality jewel bearings? Or did he fix his mind entirely on his drafting, his precise lines, and the unfortunate, disturbing slashes across the page, which he was unwilling, or unable, to remove?


Perhaps the idea of Lebovics working in his carriage struck me so strongly in the train because, by then, I knew how Weber’s argument in The Ablation Wheel ended: with her commendation of the ablation conglomerates.

She begins her final chapter by quoting early twentieth century investigators. They found up to three children working on a single ablation wheel, even though Lebovics’ design only required one. Weber argues that this was common practice, and that it only came to an end with the mid-century introduction of the conglomerates. Those behemoths only needed one adult overseer for every hundred wheels. So, Weber concludes, the conglomerates helped end child-labour in the West. Freedom marched.

I shook my head when I read that for the first time, and even now I grit my teeth and swallow back bile at the thought of it. Children had been forced to enter the wheel. They’d become physically and mentally stunted. The conglomerates reduced the need for child labourers. All true.

But how did they help impoverished children? They didn’t increase wages, didn’t establish schools. The conglomerate owners had no interest in such things. They each owned dozens of ablation wheels already, and they knew perfectly well who worked in them. Others learned of the exploitation or became angry at it only when someone wanted the capital-intensive conglomerates to take the place of the old, labour-intensive wheels.

So why does Weber argue so strongly for the conglomerates as moral goods? The owners’ motivation in making the argument is obvious: they could only sell the conglomerates to the post-war state if they also sold the idea of the conglomerates to the publics. They knew that their innovation, which would increase profits, would also increase unemployment and spark industrial strife. Their pitch was a twist of truth: conglomerates as great social good. Look!, they said, We’ll end child labour. I admit it, the idea has great force.

The owners needed a different argument in the colonies, where nobody had any intention of ending child labour. There, they argued, the conglomerates would liberate the people. First, they would be freed from Lebovics’ manual wheels and the mangled hands the machines had imposed on them; then, the increased productivity would free them from want; and the profits from the conglomerates’ surplus would allow the natives (sic) to arm themselves. The conglomerate owners were, in fact, revolutionary anti-colonialists.

Weber accepts their claim. Why? Just to avoid the opposite conclusion, that the end of child labour and decolonization were not absolute goods in themselves, but tools that could be used to disguise the horrors of the past, and those of the future?

I’m angry at this logic, or lack of it, but I suspect that my emptiness is due more to the idea of the child-ablationists’ parents. I can’t help but imagine myself in their place, facing a conglomerate owner who tells me that the Lebovics wheel, into which I had thrust my child, had been a tool of colonization, child exploitation, and slavery. They tell me that I have exploited my daughter, enslaved her, put her at the service of tyrants—but also that I don’t have to worry about all that now. Now, they tell me, someone is here to save my daughter from my bad decisions, they tell me this with straight faces, even though the men shaking their heads at my culpability could only install their new, humane machines because my child had worked for so long, so cheaply, on their old, inhumane ones, producing such profits that ever larger machines could be designed, built, bought, and used. Those parents, dismissed as slavers of their own children and the work that they’d done—well, the page on which they and their work was recorded was flipped over. Only its immaculately blank side would be visible from now on. What hope, then? What point in pity? I have to stand, open a window, regain control.


My husband has just arrived home with our daughter. He tells me to keep at it while he feeds her, and she mumbles, between mouthfuls, umumum, adadadada. She’s strapped into a plastic chair, and it’s easier on my husband’s back to feed her on the floor. But if she rocks back hard enough she can tip the chair over, so he has to strap her in, hold the chair down with his right hand, and feed her with his left. I sip my tea—not ginger today, but iced mint green. The sun is warm, and I am healthy.

The children who worked on the ablation wheels were trapped, just as our daughter is trapped. They had to urinate continuously onto the ablation cogs, which transformed the machine’s power into its product; to this end they were forced to drink huge volumes of liquid—huge, but precisely controlled volumes, because liquid costs money. The cockpit, as Lebovics named the tiny space in his plans, was noisome, and dark, and so loud that the children could hear nothing but turning cogs. Progressive or Fabian investigators described these child-ablationists, whom they found working daily shifts of up to eighteen hours: often deaf, acutely sensitive to light, and frighteningly pale. No wonder; Lebovics had suggested that they should be required to work no more than ten hours a week.

One investigator interviewed a young Brummie known only as Cliff—I remember him particularly because this is my father-in-law’s name. Cliff was the smallest, thinnest child in the family. The ablation wheels needed labourers, he applied, his body was measured, he fitted the cockpit. He’d been working on the wheel for a few weeks when the investigator met him. He could still speak, still hear, his skin was fresh. He was dead within the year.

At that time only the owners, labourers, and investigators really knew the extent of the children’s suffering, and many of them thought it could be justified. And in fact they did try to justify it by stressing the wheel’s astonishing economic effects in newspaper editorials and parliamentary inquiries and congressional discussions. The price of everyday items fell, people could buy more and live more luxuriously, they could give their children lives that their grandparents would have found astonishing. And, of course, the Lebovics wheels made possible the ablation conglomerates—those finely designed machines the size of small towns, which would intensify all the benefits.

Today, of course, we know all about Cliff. It’s easy for us to judge. But what would we have said if we’d only known the economic benefits? If all we knew was that we’d be able to sit with a cheap laptop while our child giggled cheerfully at a two-dimensional plastic house, through whose door she had just learned to crawl?


Learning about this machine, the spurs it gives to my imagination, the love of my family, my pity for the suffering, my hope for the future—the flashes of colour on a page of The Ablation Wheel: A History, the sun on my hands, the pleasant enervation in my legs that lets me know I’m getting over a cold, the peaceful quiet of snow fall, all the distinct smells and tastes—the linking of images in my mind, the opportunity to read—all these were denied to the children who worked on the machines that drove the economic growth that made it possible for me, the grandchild of Japanese peasants, the parent of a happy, content Australian, to sit on the couch and read in the sun while I recovered from a cold, or read on a train between wintry North American cities, and never be forced to feed gold-bearing ore into an ablation wheel, by hand, in the mine’s dark, with condensation dripping in my eyes.

But still, I can identify with Cliff—particularly when I’m hollowed out and withdrawn, as I am now. Like Cliff, I’m constantly trapped in or by machines, by trains (Lebovics in his carriage!), computers, phones, and scanners. We all suffer. My daughter will be like Cliff one day, working at a job she doesn’t enjoy, suffering health troubles, perhaps cancer, she’ll—

But then, who am I to identify with this child, or to identify my child with him? What sort of book is this, that it would let its readers see themselves in a mutilated child—the same readers who are the beneficiaries of the child’s mutilation? No wonder I feel hollow, hungry, withdrawn, whatever this is, when the book turns me—I don’t know how—into this amphibian, a tea-sipping doctor and starved child who—

No, it’s not the book’s fault, the book isn’t the cause. Did I always know that? The feeling is worst when I think about what I have that those children lacked, and it is eased when I see myself in Cliff. The withdrawal doesn’t come from the book; it comes from my inability to hold together my family’s wealth and its conditions. When they rub together in my mind, my body reacts, and it relaxes when I find a way to keep them apart. Reading back over this, what, this essay?, I see that I don’t even write about them in the same way: my memories are elegiac, the history didactic, as if I were trying to separate them even at the level of description.

And if that doesn’t work, I can always imagine something else, construct a wily argument, ponder a pleasant memory, put other people in my position—What did Lebovics feel? How did people think about it at the time?—anything to take myself out of the thought. Like a sophomore in English class, I can tidily caption the ablation wheel: it’s a symbol of capitalism! It’s a symbol of industrialism or colonisation or power! It’s a symbol of some other safe abstraction that doesn’t involve me—and if, despite all this, what will I do if I still can’t take myself out of the story? I’ll take my half cup of iced mint tea and join my family: the dog playing with his rubber ball; my husband singing his nonsense songs; our daughter, a puffy snack in her perfect left hand, gurgling at his rhymes. The tea’s ice has melted, it’s sure to be tepid and intolerably bland in the summer’s heat. Well, I’ll pour another glass. And, in a few months, I’ll pick up the The Ablation Wheel again.