Retrotechtacular: We’re Gonna Have Manual Transmissions the Way My Old Man Told Me!

archimedesSimple machines are wonderful in their own right and serve as the cornerstones of many technological advances. This is certainly true for the humble lever and the role it plays in manual transmissions as evidenced in this week’s Retrotechtacular installment, the Chevrolet Motor Company’s 1936 film, “Spinning Levers”.

This educational gem happens to be a Jam Handy production. For you MST3K fans out there, he’s the guy behind shorts like Hired! from the episodes Bride of the Monster and the inimitable Manos: The Hands of Fate. Hilarity aside, “Spinning Levers” is a remarkably educational nine-ish minutes of slickly produced film that explains, well, how a manual transmission works. More specifically, it explains the 3-speed-plus-reverse transmissions of the early automobile era.

It begins with a nod to Archimedes’ assertion that a lever can move the world, explaining that the longer the lever, the better the magic. In a slightly different configuration, a lever can become a crank or even a double crank. Continuous motion of a lever or series of levers affords the most power for the least work, and this is illustrated with some top-drawer stop motion animation of two meshing paddle wheels.

gearsNext, we are shown how engine power is transferred to the rear wheels: it travels from a gear on the engine shaft to a gear on the drive shaft through gears on the countershaft. At low speeds, we let the smallest gear on the countershaft turn the largest gear on the drive shaft. When the engine is turning 90 RPM, the rear wheel turns at 30 RPM. At high speeds using high gears, the power goes directly from the engine shaft to the drive shaft and the RPM on both is equal. The film goes on to explain how the gearbox handles reverse, and the vast improvements to transmission life made possible through synchromesh gearing.

[Thank you to Peter for sending this in]

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.



  1. Ron says:

    Jam Handy had nothing to do with the production of “Manos: The Hands of Fate” (as this article seems to imply). The only connection between the two is that the Jam Handy short ‘Hired!’ was presented on an episode of ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000′ before the feature presentation of ‘Manos.’

  2. agjio says:

    Make sure to lubricate your shaft or it might seize.

  3. Als Taxi says:

    I love this shet. Especially the beginning. Thanks again.

    Can someone point to website with a collection of these videos.

  4. fartface says:

    It seems that people were far more educated back then. Today most of the masses barely knows how a door works.

  5. TrumpysVendetta says:

    “…but Master, you have so many gears! Why cannot I have one of them?”

  6. chango says:

    No springs, no transmission.

  7. Nonya-Biz says:

    imagine how much money/gas would be saved if all cars were still manual. people are lazy.

    • spacecoyote says:

      A good driver may do better, but an average driver will get better mileage with a modern automatic transmission.

      • Mike Lu says:

        A modern automatic transmission (“dual clutch”) can be thought of as two manual transmissions with electronic control. In reality, they seem to be very unreliable and many drivers have complained about them having a “mind of their own” in manual mode. I have test driven several cars with those DCTs and they all felt “clunky” starting from a stop. In the end, I decided to go with a clutchless CVT.

    • Kip says:

      In europe almost al cars have a manual transmission . Not sure why, most cars do offer the option. Automatics are mostly perceived as a lazy or incompetent option. :)

    • Blue Footed Booby says:

      My 14 mile commute takes 45 minutes to an hour ten across extremely bicycle hostile roads. If not wanting to do that in a manual is lazy, then I’m lazy, and you can go fuck yourself.

      • andrewjhull says:

        Hmm… not sure if that is physically possible, I’m sure many have tried though…but perhaps the Blue Footed Booby is blessed with this ability…

        However on the subject of efficiency, not much to choose these days between most manual and automatic offerings, but when it comes to having fun when driving (also know as driving like a lunatic in some circles), the manual wins hands down, ‘cos you can predict the correct gear you are about to need, much more easily than even the best computerised system.

        Random website about transmission efficiency follows (… take with a large pinch of condiment… like most things, on the interwebz and do your own research if you really care… )

        • andrewjhull says:

          … now cruise control on the other hand.. that really does improve efficiency, as well as boring all the other drivers behind me to death… and an in depth…. machines were hurt in the making of this… type article about how that works sounds like something I would be interested in.

  8. Ekranoplane says:

    Why does Archimedes look so damned pissed?

  9. iwasz says:

    Great video. All motorcycles have manual gearbox and it is not synchronized. You have to increase RPM when reducing the gear. Shifting gears on motorcycle without a crack is not so easy. They are much more demanding than cars and thus so exciting.

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