The Unofficial Lego Technic Builder's Guide
Most book publishers don't really have a 'brand'. You buy a book because of the title or the author. No one cares who Stephen King's publisher is. However, every now and then a publisher comes along who simply makes cool books. A publisher who's books I will buy regardless of the title or author. No Starch Press is one such publisher.
No Starch has consistently published fascinating books on a wide array of topics. Their slogan is the finest in geek entertainment and they mean it. Currently my shelf includes an illustrated Periodic Table of Elements, Python for Kids, and the Super Scratch Programming Adventure. I'll be writing these up soon, but in the mean time I want to talk about a trilogy of cool books No Starch just sent me. They cover a topic near an dear to many an engineer and hacker: Legos.
Lego Technic Builders Guide
The first title is The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder's Guide by Pawel "sariel" Kmiec (link). I've read Lego books before, but this is no ordinary title. Devoted exclusively to LEGO's Technic line of models for older children/adults, it dives deeper than I knew Legos could go. While I played with the Technic line as a child, I had no idea the wider Lego enthusiast community had taken their designs so far.
If you've never played with Technic sets, you should really take a look. They are designed around real-world models with functioning gears, motors, and mechanical assemblies. Think of a sports car with rack and pinion steering and a proper differential drive train, or a pneumatically controlled steam shovel. These sets are also the basis of Lego's robotics sets, as they allow you to build almost arbitrarily complex systems entirely from little Lego bricks.
At first glance you might think Pawel's book is just a set of models to build, but it's actually the opposite. He specifically doesn't give you models to build. Instead he focuses on the how, not the what. He explains how a differential drive train actually works, then gives you the instructions to build just that component. Then he shows how to improve it with more robust parts and smoother gears. His goal is to teach you *how* the mechanical systems , giving you the knowledge to integrate the components into your own larger models.
Toy parts, real engineering
As I read through the first few chapters I realized I was not only learning about advanced Lego techniques, but also an introduction to real mechanical engineering. In Chapter 5 he covers the many types of gears, what they are used for, and the unique advantages of each. Chapter 6 covers chains and pulleys, where he explains many of the common pulley combinations used in real mechanical systems. The illustrations are impressively clear and concise. Chapter 7 covers levers and linkages. Even if you've never heard of a Chebyshev linkage or Pantograph, you'll know how they work by the end of the chapter.
My favorite section is probably Chapter 8: Custom Mechanical Solutions. Pawel shows how to improve on the standard LEGO gearing systems with new designs that have unique advantages in strength, locking, and features. The Schmidt coupling is especially intriguing. Later chapters cover advanced mechanics like suspension systems, transmissions, tracked vehicles and the modeling process. The book is impressively comprehensive.
The book covers both old and newer Technic sets, explaining how individual components like the pneumatic system have evolved over the years. (I'm especially fond of the pneumatic claw system I had when I was twelve).
I heartily recommend this book to any adult. Be aware that this really is for older children, probably 12 and up. I imagine an 8 year old would be bored to tears reading it. For younger Lego enthusiasts I suggest one of No Starch's other Lego books (which I will covers soon).
So. Verdict: buy or no buy? Buy! Buy Now!
Though normally 29.95$ you can get it by Christmas for only 19$ if you order with Amazon Prime.
Posted December 19th, 2012