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Still the Spark of Ignition after 156 Years

December 1st, 2018 by Michael Dyet


“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” –  Charles Mingus, American jazz bassist, pianist, composer and bandleader.

Hmmm, is elegant simplicity the true measure of technological success?

I had to have my car towed to the garage last weekend. You know how it is when you are waiting for the diagnosis of the problem – particularly when you have an older car. You hope that it will not turn out to be a major repair with a big price tag attached.

When the call came, it was good news – new spark plugs and a minor tune-up. Even as a breathed a sigh of relief, my first thought was: Spark plugs? Do cars still have spark plugs? I thought they would have been replaced by now by a high tech, computer module.

For those of you not familiar with car mechanics,  a spark plug is a device for delivering electric current from an ignition system to the combustion chamber of a spark-ignition engine to ignite the compressed fuel/air mixture by an  electric spark. Thank you, Wikipedia. No, I do not really comprehend the processes involved. I just know a car will not start without them.

I started wondering when the spark plug was invented and by whom. Turns out it dates all the way back to 1860. Belgian engineer Jean J. Lenior, who developed the internal combustion engine a couple of years earlier, is credited with the invention.

In a time when technology is increasing exponentially, I find it reassuring that the spark plug has endured so long. It restores my faith in the principle that good things remain good things and do not need to be improved upon.

I rented a car for three days while my mine was awaiting repair. It was a Toyota CH-R which had a bewildering display of buttons and dials with indecipherable icons. I had to consult the User’s Manual to figure out how to use the defrosters. I kid you not.

Turns out the car has a climate control system that literally runs itself. I suppose I should be impressed by that innovation. But I was not enthused with the idea of turning over control of that simple function to a computer. It made me feel redundant.

I also cannot help but think: Have we become so lackadaisical that we cannot be bothered to adjust the defroster settings? Technology aims to make our lives easier and that is a good thing. But when it encourages us to be lazy it may be doing us more harm than good.

I am happy to be back in my nine year old Hyundai Accent. She does not run as whisper quiet as the new Toyota CH-R. She creaks and groans when we go over a speed bump, has a few rust spots and has had a number of her original parts replaced. But we have been together for seven years. I am not inclined to break up with her while she is still alive and kicking.

Back to the humble spark plug. I doubt you will find it on anyone’s list of the greatest technological innovations of all time. But perhaps it should be. The fact that it has a lifespan of 156 years and counting is a strong claim to fame.

I declare the spark plug to be an enduring metaphor for making the complicated awesomely simple. That is all too rare these days. All hail the humble spark plug!

Now Available Online from Amazon, Chapters Indigo or Barnes & Noble: Hunting Muskie, Rites of Passage – Stories by Michael Robert Dyet

~ Michael Robert Dyet is also the author of Until the Deep Water Stills – An Internet-enhanced Novel which was a double winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards 2009. Visit Michael’s website at or the novel online companion at

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