Every Short Story – ‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’

‘The Crank that Made the Revolution’ seems to me a title in search of a story. Not only is the phrase itself so wonderful you are almost convinced it has some historical provenance, but it contains not one, but two puns: literally it is about a mechanical crankshaft that works through revolution, but its inventor is also something of a crank, and the originator (according to Gray) of the Industrial Revolution.

You don’t have to scour the web very far to discover someone asking whether this particular story has any basis in fact, and not much further to find someone else who swears it does. The crankshaft, however, was not invented in 18th century Cessnock, having been around since Roman times. An early clue to the story’s unreliability as a historical document is the inventor’s unlikely name, Vague McMenemy. Vague is not the Gaelic version of Alexander, as Gray tells us – that would be Alasdair.

The story is a satire of industrialisation. McMenemy’s first invention seeks to make ducks more efficient. A duck “is not an efficient machine” being not particularly world-leading at any of the things it does: flying, swimming or walking. McMenemy enhances its swimming ability through use of the crankshaft, and then repeats the experiment with a flock. Though they attain great speed, this only leads to them hitting the opposite bank, capsizing and drowning. McMenemy then repeats the process with his granny, utilising the energy she uses to rock her rocking chair to power even faster knitting.

Gray’s distrust of ‘progress’ for its own sake is clear. (We will see this reoccur throughout his career, for example in the wonderful ‘Near the Driver’). Even McMenemy himself becomes so much a part of the machine that he no longer has time for invention.

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