A New Primer on the Way Things Work

16:45 minutes

Illustrator David Macaulay has been explaining science in pictures for decades now, starting in 1988 with the beloved The Way Things Work. The book brought to life hundreds of machines, beginning with the simple lever and the wheel, and working all the way up to computers and beyond.

Drones (p. 118)

Macaulay is also known for other books—architectural tours like Pyramid, Castle, and Cathedral, and the illustrated human-body tour, The Way We Work. 

Now he’s got a new book of machines for 2016: The Way Things Work Now. He talks to Ira about how he illustrates fields that he knows nothing about, how to go about simplifying a smartphone for the printed page, and why his job is getting both harder and more meaningful as technology keeps shrinking.

Speech recognition (p. 363)Digital video (p. 206)

Illustrations from The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay. © 2016 by David Macaulay. Used with permission Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Segment Guests

David Macaulay

David Macaulay is illustrator of The Way Things Work Now. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). He’s based in Norwich, Vermont.

Meet the Producer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

  • Dale Van Eck

    I am a former media specialist who used David’s books to convince young kids to read cool stuff! Appreciate David’s sense of humor and clever drawing to “draw” kids in, going “way back” to Pyramid, Castle and Cathedral along with the videos of those books. Between Macaulay and Van Allsburg, they were the basis of the most used section of my library! Hopefully David gave up using M&M’s to track how long it took to write a book and has moved on to something a bit more healthful!

  • Kevin Skipper

    I read your book , The Way Things Work when I was nine years-old. When my brother and I moved to California with our dad, we rode the train from New York to California. For three days I was glued to the window, watching the countryside pass by for 3,000 miles. I asked my father about everything I saw. How much does this train weigh? How do fish swim if a stream is frozen? What does “diesel” mean? In Oakland, the questions would continue. After a couple weeks, he and my stepmom wearily handed me a heavy package , wrapped in a newspaper comic section. Inside was your book. Inside the front cover, was written, “For you, Son. To your hunger for information. We can’t answer every question that you ask. Maybe this book can give you a good start…”
    The book was lost along the way with moves and storage but my obsession with information and learning is still with me. I feel like I must have thumbed through it a hundred times. Lost in each concept as it was explained in hilarious panoramic comic format. Mammoths with garden hoses strapped to their trunkline legs. Paleolithic cavemen flung through the air by misguided experiments with mastodon traps…. It was Mad Magazine meets World Book!
    Awesome to hear you’re releasing an update to your amazing series. I’ll get the original just for your illustration of the roller-skated mammoth trussed with cane framed wings, using his trunk as a jet to attempt take-off. 😅 Genius!
    Anyway, thank you David Macaulay for continuing to share your ability to understand and explain things that so many are curious about. Ira, same to you. You guys are an inspiration .

    Kevin Skipper Jr. 35
    Oakland, CA

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