Of Course We’re Clever, We’re Engineers

We’re very clever, we engineers. We can design something to last a lifetime; or we can design it to fail one minute after the warranty expires.

We’re very clever, we engineers. We can design something to last a lifetime; or we can design it to fail one minute after the warranty expires.

When I put on my consumer hat, I am amazed and exasperated at how some devices have a tendency to give up the ghost within days following the end of the warranty period. I’m sure you have all had a similar experience. A monitor goes blank; a coffeemaker coughs and dies; a car battery won’t crank.

In some respects this is a good thing. Planned obsolescence makes room for newer and better technology. Besides, how long would our economy survive if everything we made lasted forever?

Nonetheless, I have great admiration for designs that seem timeless. Scouring through some old fishing tackle in my basement, I came across a small, oil-stained carton in a metal tackle box. I opened the carton and revealed a Pflueger Medalist fly-fishing reel. The stamping on the frame read, “PFLUEGER 1494 DA MADE IN USA.” I remember my father casting for trout with this reel.

I took the reel and my new, $600 graphite fly rod and went out into the backyard. Mounting the reel -- with its 6-weight line -- on my super-fancy, expensive rod, I began to cast the line over my lawn. The reel hummed as it let out line. It cast smoothly, and the drag system made a satisfying clicking sound as I reeled the line back in.

Back in the house, I hefted the reel in my hand. It was a bit heavy by today’s standards, built like a ’58 Buick. I removed the spool from the housing and looked at the mechanism inside the reel housing. There were just a few components: spindle, drag plate, brake shoe, leaf spring, cam, and adjustment screw. Immediately, my curiosity was piqued.

With a little research I discovered that the Pflueger Medalist reel evolved from the Enterprise Manufacturing Company, established by Earnest Pflueger in Akron, OH in 1881. Originally, the company made hooks, lures, and fishing tackle. In 1930, Charles Pflueger was granted a patent for a fly reel design and the Medalist first appeared in the Pflueger catalog in 1931.

That was the beginning of a long, illustrious career (among fishermen) for the Pflueger Medalist reel. It enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but maintains a strong following among fly-fisherman even today.

Now you can buy fly-fishing reels crafted from titanium with drag mechanisms that could bring the space shuttle down through the earth’s atmosphere -- reels whose beauty (and cost) could rival the finest diamond setting in a jewelry store. But I’m not convinced that they would catch fish any better than the Pflueger Medalist I hold in my hand, which probably cost my father about $17.95. Moreover, the reel is nearly indestructible. I can pass it on to my grandchildren when the time comes.

As an engineer, I understand why things are made to not last forever; yet I can’t help but admire those things that are designed so simply, and made so well, that they do.

You can read more blog posts from Brent and other product application engineers at the Gates Belts & Applications blog.

What are your thoughts? Post your comments below or send them to boman@gates.com