Joseph Whitworth – by Alan Cliff (part of Brief Encounters)

I am not one. But I have had many experiences with engineers. I have worked with them. Argued with them. Fought with them. Got drunk with them. And danced with them. For me, they are a complicated sort, because they are so clear of mind and vision. They have this innate will to make sense of the physical things that surround them.

Arts vs Sciences has been a topical debate for centuries. So when 24:7 planned to enmesh the two I was intrigued by what the outcome could be. I wandered around the University Campus but could not find the scientist I wanted to take inspiration from. As I walked towards The Curry Mile, passing the Contact Theatre and the MRI I thought I would head into The Whitworth Art Gallery, grab a bite and have some thinking time. It was only when I saw the portrait of Whitworth himself, with his hand gently poised over an engineering device I didn’t recognise*, that I saw a combination of both art and science. And thusly, my decision was made.

There are two blue plaques dedicated to Sir Joseph Whitworth – neither of them on The University Campus. One exists in my hometown of Stockport (also his birthplace) and the other in Alfreton, Derbyshire (his workplace).

I was then to sit down and think about what to write. And this is where I become the artist and the engineer. (Note: If there is a such thing as a mechanical engineer and a software engineer can there be such a thing as a playwright engineer? Is that an oxymoron?? Or is it tautological? The ‘wright’ in playwright being of engineering context perhaps? I sometimes wish I had an engineering head, surely this would make playwriting easier…?). Whitworth was a perfectionist. Much like the engineers I know and have known. It is their greatest talent and their greatest flaw. And whilst it is up for debate, I believe characters need flaws. So how is being a perfectionist a flaw? Is it possibly because it is an overwhelming challenge? And when things do not go quite right it can be considered a catastrophic failure – as my experiences have dealt me. That is the inspiration of my piece: channelling perfection into an imperfect world. Can you apply logic to a world born of chaos? Is that impossible?

Whitworth, though, was very successful. He is part of the items in your house and in your office and in your computers that you probably didn’t realise.  He was also a philanthropist, bequeathing fortunes for the establishment of public buildings in Manchester and beyond.  Perhaps this is the biggest impression Whitworth has offered me as a researcher, that he is an engineer yes, a connector of screws and nuts and bolts and tools but he was also a man of the people, a connector of the human kind. It is within these two relationships, Whitworth and machines and Whitworth and man that I was able to locate a dramatic conflict with which to write the monologue.

Alan Cliff – 22/06/2015

*The device is a millionth of an inch measuring machine.