Be The Cam

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Cams have been used in engineering from the 3rd century BC, in everything from music boxes to combustion engines. 

Janet thinks of them as ‘oblong circles’.  

The green walls weren’t a soothing green.  There was a yellow, flat cast to them. So flat that despite the broad windows that covered one wall, the room was dark and dull. The green paint sucked in sunbeams like a blackhole. Stuffed animals, mainly birds and rodents, decorated the walls and stared into the classroom with fake glass eyes. The benches that lined three walls of the 7th grade classroom held jars of formaldehyde. Decaying organs, snakes, and a few odd worms floated about the debris in the jars. The windows would be opened as the oncoming summer heat soaked through the red brick and past the glass. The wafting breeze aided evaporation as the children perspired.  

This was decades ago.

There was no internet. No computers. We were ten years away from even a large, bulky calculator that performed only four basic functions. That would cost two hundred dollars. There was no air conditioning. And I was in the 7thgrade. And the teacher has made an assignment, we were to do a science project.

For a family without much education (and in those days of Arkansas south, illiteracy was a real thing, my maternal grandfather could not read), my father had insisted on learning.  He actually said these exact words to me, “You can lose almost anything, but knowledge and education can never be taken from you.”

So, in the small, brown house in a neighborhood of blue collar workers, every month the postman delivered the most recent Scientific American to our mailbox. Towards the back of every issue, a multi-page instruction sheet with images, provided detailed instructions on that month’s amateur science project.

I am not sure how Dad knew I had a project due. Along with pukey green walls in old school buildings, a consistent fact of education back then was the lack of parental involvement or knowledge of student homework. Perhaps it was a sign of the times… that would change by the time I had children.

The next thing I knew, Dad had pulled a recent issue, its glossy, simple, and scientifically alluring cover turned back, the spine splayed open to that month’s amateur scientist project.

It was an electric motor made from a tin can, and involved understanding the placement of the armature between the magnet poles, the brushes wrapped with copper wire and a six-volt battery hookup.


This is EXACTLY what a shy, thirteen year-old girl wants to do for show and tell in her science class…

(some important parts are missing…->)

There are two things I would say about that experience.

One was I that I felt like a fraud. I had no idea how the motor actually worked. My dad would have been disappointed in this. The lack of understanding was not about my inherent inability to understand an electric motor. I am certain it had more to do with my complete preoccupation over the possible peer reaction and outfall in terms of popularity. Very little positive thinking was getting past that worry.

The other was, now, five decades later, centered around how that event has provided an interesting thread in the tapestry that God seems to be weaving.  

For instance, my youngest sons loves engines, motors, jet engines, train engines, diesel motors, all the details of cars, car shows, car movies, car magazines, car research and development, old cars, new cars, concept cars, car parts, car maintenance, clean cars…

You get the idea.

I was riding with him last week.

“Jan, the idea is…” he gestured and talked animatedly, maneuvering his truck through the light San Antonio traffic.

He was explaining the current design for jet engines that allows for greater fuel economy. He segued into the difference in av gas and regular gas. We talked about the additives and octanes and how diesel engines and the difference in compression in various engines. Which led us to discuss the value of the way fuel injection has changed, he explaining that the very additives we had discussed previously affected buildup in combustion engines. This had led to him detailing the ingenious ways of delivering gas to the chambers for explosion, very complex developments including two injection systems, one directly into the valve, cleaning it.


I have taken some liberties in that description for you. Mostly my Josh talked and I listened.  And according to his critical reading of this little story, he says it was him informing me that  “Koenigsegg posted on Instagram about their fancy new engine” was how our conversation started. .


(that is the engine. 1600 hp… apparently it roars.)


What was happening in my head was this:

I wanted to soak in and understand and follow the knowledge and understanding he had. I wanted to appreciate his mind and his interest. It is one of the true joys in my life, to step into my sons’ life through conversation. I don’t want to miss a second of it. I also thought, this is hard going. What can I relate to this, so I can at least appreciate the genius of engines and motors like he does.

“What about the Mazda Rotor engine from years ago,” I asked.

“There was a problem with wear on the engine because of contact points with the three cams,” he said.

“Josh, is a cam just making use of the ‘wheel’ but changing its shape so that its oblong?” I asked. The conversation had turned to timing because of my Mazda questions and this is part and parcel to fuel injection. We moved to timing chains.

(A little over 45 years ago, my new husband and I were stranded in a small Colorado town, with no money and a four door Torino, whose timing chain had malfunctioned.)

The more Josh talked, while trying to digest it all, I realized that the little tiny molecular machines I know of in biology are as complicated. The machines that copy my DNA, that take energy from the sun and turn into the plants I have in my garden, the complex way that environments speak to each other through chemicals, my honey bees… are extraordinary both in their complexity and a fidelity that even allows for change! They have evolved in ways that seems comparable to all of the genius of engines and motors Josh was inviting me to appreciate.

I mentioned this to him.

I mentioned that in the long history of biological evolution, there were clearly dead ends or maybe even terminal designs that really had no more complexity or improvement landscape to explore.

“Like the rotary engine”, I said. He went on to explain the newest developments, the engineers had not given up.

Biology really doesn’t either, I thought.

Neither does God.

I have a word for you reading this.

Step back for a moment and consider what has brought you to today. Take a look at all the events in your life that have made you you. Take inventory.

And recognize that despite the worry, we are in a place of opportunity.

Today you have wifi signals bombarding every building in every city. Streaming along fiber optics and cell towers, wireless and wired, are packets of information bringing you TV shows and conversations.  Facetime ‘shows’ you someone you love, whether they are around the block or half a world away. You can stream music to sooth your worried mind during the night in homes that are either comfortably warm or cool. The outside world is a little bit less burdened right now because there is a weird advantage to this halting of our lives, when it comes to the air you are breathing as you take your walk.  The birds are still singing and laying eggs, gardens are blossoming, and there are dewberries about to be picked. Educators are working to find new ways to educate. Workers are making toilet paper and stocking it in your big box store that semi drivers have ferried around our nation. Business tycoons, economists, and scientists, whose training has put them in the best possible place to provide some positive answers, are hard at work.

Have faith.

We are in a place of hope. Don’t be afraid to evolve. You too can be a cam. Do your part. Be diligent. Be wise. Be thoughtful. Be kind. Have a conversation with someone you love despite physical separation. Comfort a child who thinks the news is telling them this is the end of the world. In fact, it isn’t. Listen to those who are of a generation different than you, young and old. Open your mind. Soak up some knowledge from people that know more than you know. In that inventory you took, consider how your past informs you today. Step outside, for real and in your thinking. Welcome others who think differently than you into your conversations. Look for change. Don’t be afraid to be a community in effort to find solutions. Don’t get bogged down in fear. Don’t let peer pressure dictate your thinking. Look for the places God has weaved you into His plan. Because He has. We are uniquely positioned in the year 2020. Nowday, no woman is an island even if you are on one!  There are astounding solutions possible when the need for something becomes imperative. 

So have faith.

And pray. Peace is possible. Prayer provides orientation in your thinking. Even in the difficulties of life. My Father doesn’t even care if you’d like to rail against all of this. Trust me. I know He’s okay with complaints.

If you can’t or don’t want to, ask me to pray. I will.

I am a living witness to its power.


1. If you’d like to see a classroom with pokey green walls, watch The Tree of Life.

2. I still do not understand the toilet paper shortage.

3. For the Scientific American Amateur Scientist, go here. Although I cannot find the simple direct current motor in this list. A google search shows that I am not the only one who built this motor. And no one seems to know exactly where the instructions were printed, although this one from Popular Mechanics is close. 

4. In this story I rewrote a very old proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”. I find these cultural examples of the same concept interesting, especially the Danes.

·       Arabic : “الحاجة ام الاختراع”, which literally means “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

·       Bulgarian: “Неволята Учи”, which literally means “Misery Teaches.”

·       Russian: “Голь на выдумки хитра”, which literally means “Poor people are crafty.”[8].

·       Japanese: 必要は発明の母, which literally means “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

·       Polish: “Potrzeba jest matką wynalazków”, which literally means “Necessity is the mother of the inventions.”

·       Danish: “Nød lærer nøgen kvinde at spinde”, which literally means “Need teaches naked woman to spin (wool).”

·       Spanish “La necesidad es la madre de la ciencia”, which literally means “The necessity is the mother of science”

·       German “Not macht erfinderisch”, which means literally “necessity makes you inventive”

·       Italian “La necessità aguzza l’ingegno”, which means “necessity sharpens ingenuity”

·       French: “La nécessité est mère de l’invention.”

·       Latin “Mater artium necessitas”, which means “necessity [is] the mother of arts”

9 Responses

  1. I LOVE this! Clever and well-written! I’ve been thinking this too (“Necessity is…”) WWII was terrible but so much innovation as a result (and we found out women had brains and could also create and invent and work outside the home!)…I also love to watch the creativity and connection, even baby steps in that direction, all around me: children putting paintings in front windows, young couples cleaning out garages and setting up serious gyms in them, neighbors visiting w regulation spatial distancing, etc.
    I read some of the definitions in Note #4 to Dieter and he was full of other great German ones. But none so good as that Danish one. Haha!
    And best of all, the heavens and nature are still declaring the glory of God.
    P.S. I was going to give you a call, since you came to mind today in my prayers this morning. And again later as I was making my breakfast with local honey. 😉 So glad to ‘hear’ from you here!

  2. Regarding toilet paper shortage (and other shortages), in addition to high demand, this can be a factor:
    “The U.S. trucker shortage is expected to more than double over the next decade as the industry struggles to replace aging drivers and recruit more women. The driver deficit swelled by more than 10,000 to 60,800 in 2018 from a year earlier, according to a study by the American Trucking Associations.Jul 23, 2019”.
    They bring the paper to the store…

    Excellent article Janet!

  3. Beautiful! I too find “true joy” in conversation with my daughters.
    So happy God wove into the tapestry of His plan for me!

  4. I, too, was in that 7th grade class ions ago. Rest assured the boys didn’t figure out cams until a couple years later with the ‘one and only true muscle cars’.

    Sorry, I know that wasn’t the point…but we lived it, girlfriend! 🤗

  5. Wow, Janet. I can’t stop thinking about your message here. Your statements have just changed me: “Very little positive thinking was getting past that worry” and “Despite the worry, we are in a place of opportunity”. “Look for change”. “Look for the places where God has weaved you into his plan”. I am inspired. Thank you.

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