Essential Science part II Working Smart

I wonder what the poor folks are having tonight? Episode #14


The definition must have been in a chemistry book about the 11th grade. It’s the only positive thing I can recall about that wasted year-long class. Forgive my old-fashioned symbols. To me, X still means ‘times.’ It’s the symbol for multiplication. We were taught the asterisk * just means another exception to a rule, or Roger Maris hitting 61 home runs in a season against way better pitching isn’t the real record. It’s a symbol that means things are way more complicated than I thought. Great. That helps.

Mechanical work includes work moving against gravity (e.g., up an elevator) or any opposing force. Work is equal to the force times the distance the object moves:

w = F*d

Or, in terms even I can understand, work = force x distance.

The classic example I learned was something like lifting a one pound weight one foot. And yes, we actually used to have science books that used English weights and measures that still make sense today. Hard to believe, I know.

Now what I learned from this was that the real definition of work involved lifting a weight. I thought about this very seriously. My thought process was something like this:

The definition of work is lifting

The definition of work is lifting.

  • The more lifting or the higher the lift, the more work there is.
  • Lifting wears me out, meaning more lifting leads to fewer hours I can work.
  • Lifting bestows the gift of a hernia.
  • Lifting brings piles.
  • Lifting throws your back out.
  • Lifting on one side all the time can make one arm longer than the other.
  • In terms I can understand: LIFTING BAD.

And that is how I arrived at my dislike of putting any loose object on the floor. The heavier the loose object, the closer to waist level it should be stored. The heavier it is, the more it will contribute to your hernia, piles, and sore back when you need to pick it up. So if you put it down on the floor, you’re just going to have to pick it up again. Translation: if it’s on the floor, sooner or later I’ll be the one who has to pick it up. Never put anything on the floor unless you can stack stuff on top of it. Put it on a shelf. If there are not enough shelves, build some! Avoid unnecessary work by standing and stacking.

I have a rule. N E V E R lay a piece of lumber on the floor or on the ground that has nails in it. If you drop a 2×4 on the ground with a nail sticking out of it and I step on it, you’ll hear about it. As soon as I heal up a little so I can run fast enough to catch you, I’ll smack you upside the head with a bigger board. If the board never goes on the ground, no one will step on it. So far, it has worked. Knock on wood.


I began to apply the lifting lessons to the work in my life. I learned there were smart ways to use a shovel and not so smart ways. I observed others using shovels and noted how long they lasted at their tasks. One guy wore himself out in about an hour. He would load the shovel and throw dirt higher than his head, thinking enthusiasm was more important than surviving until quitting time. Sometimes I would see people moving snow with straight-handled snow shovels that reminded me of the galley slaves rowing at ramming speed beside Judah Ben-Hur. To them, it was all about strokes per minute. That didn’t last long, either.

If work was about lifting, then it made sense to lift as little as possible while still performing the task. Let’s say you have a nice big load of sand that has to be loaded into a wheelbarrow to be moved to a ditch. Excavate a couple of foot places near the pile where you can be close and facing the sand. Put your wheelbarrow to your left (if you’re right-handed) and slide that long-handled shovel into the pile at about the same height as the top of the pan. Take out a modest shovel full and move it horizontally toward the barrow without raising the sand at all. Turn the shovel over and let gravity drop it. Hold the shovel handle at the end with your right hand and repeat this without moving your feet. Your left hand is the fulcrum for the shovel handle, which makes it a simple machine called a lever. Your body is the swivel. Move around the pile to find new fixed positions for your feet, but never carry the sand or raise it. When all the sand above the level of the pan is gone, drop the shovel down about six inches to take off the next layer. This layer is a little more work because it has to be raised six inches before it can go in the barrow. The layer that takes the most work is the bottom layer because it has to be raised the furthest. If you start at the bottom of the pile, then the entire pile has to be raised to the height of the barrow. Gravity will put the entire pile on the ground if you start from the bottom and make for more “work.” It’s also easier to push the shovel’s blade into the pile higher up because there’s less weight pressing down. This is very important when shoveling dirt or stone.

It isn’t being lazy. It’s being smart. When you work smart, you can work all day. You get more done and you can do more of the same when you get home. The other guy may move more in the first hour, but you’ll be ahead of him at the end of the day and your wagon won’t be dragging nearly as much. Think tortoise and hare.

Mike Mulligan Steam Shovel

Among the inventions providing the greatest lift to mankind (yes, we used that term back in the day when science books also contained less arbitrary mumbo-jumbo) have been the elevator, the hydraulic bottle jack, the forklift, the Ark, the pickup truck, and the steam shovel. Yes, we actually had steam-powered shovels. Ask Mike Mulligan. He had his own.

Mike was smart. He used a steam engine to do the heavy lifting because it was easier to load coal than move all that dirt with a shovel. All of these machines helped with lifting and moving.

Progress, however, is not always linear. Take your typical new pickup truck. The bed is now about five feet off the ground. I can’t even see over the sides. Whoever thought high beds were a good idea obviously never loaded one with a shovel. But if you look back at a 1955 International pickup or the 1951 Studebaker my grandfather had, they were sturdy and much closer to the ground. People on those days had enough sense to stay away from swamps and mud holes. They had shovel work to do.

I’d put money on the idea that the old Ark had plenty of shelves. It just wouldn’t be a good idea to throw your tools on the floor in there. Try throwing your good pruners and a nice hand saw down on the manure pile and come back in about a week to check on them. Not good. In the Ark they probably put the straw up on shelves, or in a straw loft. My 4-H club drew the job of cleaning out the swine barn at the county fair one year. It wasn’t too bad, and I’m sure it was much easier than cleaning out the Ark when they finally grounded it on Mt. Ararat. In the days before Bobcats, can you imagine how many loaded pitchfork trips it took to reach a big door on that thing? In the dark? It would be lots less work to just saw the top off of it and make it the world’s biggest container garden. Imagine how big the pumpkins would have been!

Wait. Scratch that idea. How would anybody lift the pumpkins out?

Dr. Bruce Smith — Bio and Archives

Dr. Bruce Smith (Inkwell, Hearth and Plow) is a retired professor of history and a lifelong observer of politics and world events. He holds degrees from Indiana University and the University of Notre Dame. In addition to writing, he works as a caretaker and handyman. His non-fiction book The War Comes to Plum Street, about daily life in the 1930s and during World War II,  may be ordered from Indiana University Press.

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