A beautiful design



When I was little, my dad told me and my four sisters that mountain sheep were very different to the sheep that we’d see in the fields. “They have” he assured us, as we drove through hilly Wales, “short legs on one side of their body and longer legs on the other side.”  This made perfect sense.  We could see, as we hung out of the car window to watch the sheep walk on the steep inclines above us, that this would have to be true because (think about it) if all four of their legs were the same length then they would surely just topple sideways, roll down the slope in a baa-ing tangle of wool, legs and startled sheep-faces and be flattened by one of the cars driving along the winding road that hugged the foot of the hill. 

This explanation was mildly problematic. What, we all wondered, would happen if the sheep (singular or plural) were to turn around on the hill and FACE THE OTHER WAY!! Oh no! I hear you say.   Imagine you saying.  Alright then, I’m saying it but it’s still a valid point; if their short legs are on the lower part of the incline, won’t they definitely topple sideways, roll down the hillside in a baa-ing tangle of wool etc, etc? Aha! No!  As my wise father told us, the sheep have adapted so well that they never turn around; they simply walk all the way around the hill until they come back to where they need to be. A bit like when you have to set the time on the clock in your car and you go a bit too far and have to keep going.  Same principle.

We continued to believe this for several years, along with several other pieces of mischievously erroneous information (outrageous lies, if you will) about, for example, the purpose of derricks in the Liverpool dockyards (neck braces for giraffes), the original use of the masonry brush owned by our bricklayer neighbour (toothbrush for elephants) and that eating spinach was somehow good for you.  That last one might actually be true; I’ll have to check up on it.

So, erm, I can sense I’m losing you. I feel you’re probably now poring over the writing challenge photo, asking yourself, “What’s this got to do with sheep?” And the answer to that is, well, it hasn’t actually got anything to do with real sheep but it has a certain amount to do with imaginary sheep: those with the two short legs, described by my father who, funnily enough, also has two short legs.  Look at the picture … but look back here when you’ve done it.  What is going on with that tram?

The first thing I see when I look at that picture is the clean, shiny, obviously a-world-away-from-Blackpool tram going up the hill. Or down the hill. I can’t tell.  There’s no sign of a driver, which means it’s probably not a tram really but rather a streetcar (which I think is just American for ‘tram’, actually), a funicular or something more exotic I’ve never heard of, but I think we can all agree that it’s on a very steep slope. And this is where the imaginary sheep come into it.  Not as passengers because that would be weird, but as a comparative design notion.  The tram slash funicular (yes, I KNOW you’re supposed to actually write the slash but I’m trying to boost my word count, so shhh!) has obviously been designed specifically for steep places. Like the imaginary sheep, it appears to have the perfect form for getting up and down that specific gradient.  Slight curves aside, its front appears to align nicely with the doorway in the background, which we must assume has been acquainted with a plumb-line at some point. If you look at the windows you can see that they are at three different levels, corresponding beautifully to the harsh slope of the street.  It’s a wonderful example of ‘horses for courses’. 

I can see a passenger, boldly standing inside. He’s probably doing that thing where you don’t quite hold on so you can pretend you’re surfing but still have time to grab the bar if things get bumpy. No? Just me?  Okay then.  Let’s move on.  I think I can see what looks like seats.  I’m just going to pretend that I know there are seats so that my premise will make sense; if the vehicle fits the gradient it is safe to assume that the seats are accordingly positioned so that the passengers are upright as they travel up or down the hill.

 So the tram is designed to run perfectly parallel to a steep road. Lovely! What a wonderful thing to have vehicles that are designed for each specific part of town. BUT … if you look down the hill, you can see that there is a different gradient further back. Oh no! It’s all going horribly wrong.  What was the journey like then? Were the passengers suddenly flung forward into a potentially tooth-whacking, nose-breaking, life or death situation or slapped backwards into a terrifying, face-flapping, eye-ball bulging G-Force nightmare? Obviously neither of those things; it’s a picturesque hilly tram-ride, not ‘Black Hawk Down’, but you get my drift. What seems to be a really good design has, on closer inspection, some serious flaws.  Like the sheep my dad told us about.

If the hillside sheep really had those two short legs on one side, they’d be in big trouble if they had to chase a wayward lamb and it looped behind them and made a break for the road.  Similarly, the tram would have a big problem if it got to the top of that hill and there was a big slope downwards on the other side. You could really get some surfing practice in if that happened. Yet the answer to the design problem of the hill-tram is beautifully simple: take four giraffes with neck-braces …