Knowing Where To Tap

A Fired Machinist? Charles R. Wiers? Hubert N. Alyea? Charles Proteus Steinmetz? Henry Ford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote highlights the extraordinary value of properly applying specialized knowledge. A top-expert is hired to fix a gigantic complicated machine suffering from an intractable problem. The adroit practitioner repairs the contraption with a simple action such as a hammer tap or a bolt twist, but the bill for services rendered is quite large. Many titles have been used for this tale:

  • The old engineer and the hammer
  • The ship repairman story
  • The parable of the ship mechanic
  • Knowing where to tap
  • Handyman’s invoice

Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works” of Winchester, England in 1908. The bill below was denominated in pounds and shillings. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1908 February 1, The Journal of the Society of Estate Clerks of Works, Volume 21. A Moral with an Ending, Quote Page 30, Printed and Published for the Society of Estate Clerks of Works at the “Hampshire Observer” Printing Works, Winchester, England. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


He was the best machinist in the district, and it was for that reason that the manager had overlooked his private delinquencies. But at last even his patience was exhausted, and he was told to go, and another man reigned in his stead at the end of the room.

And then the machine, as though in protest, refused to budge an inch, and all the factory hands were idle. Everyone who knew the difference between a machine and a turnip tried his hand at the inert mass of iron. But the machine, metaphorically speaking, laughed at them, and the manager sent for the discharged employee. And he left the comfort of the “Bull” parlour and came.

He looked at the machine for some moments, and talked to it as a man talks to a horse, and then climbed into its vitals and called for a hammer. There was the sound of a “tap-tap-tap,” and in a moment the wheels were spinning, and the man was returning to the “Bull” parlour.

And in the course of time the mill-owner had a bill:–“To mending machine, £10. 10s.” And the owner of the works, being as owners go, a poor man, sent a polite note to the man, in which he asked him if he thought tapping a machine with a hammer worth ten guineas. And then he had another bill:—“To tapping machine with hammer, 10s.; to knowing where to tap it, £10; total, £10. 10s.”

And the man was reinstated in his position, and was so grateful that he turned teetotaller and lived a great and virtuous old age. And the moral is that a little knowledge is worth a deal of labour.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1921 the influential business magazine “Forbes” printed in a humor section an instance of the story that a reader in Canada had submitted. The bill was specified in dollars:[ref] 1921 October 29, Forbes, A Little Laugh Now and Then: Knowledge Is Power, Quote Page 66, Column 3, B. C. Forbes Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Knowledge Is Power

In a great factory one of the huge power machines suddenly balked. In spite of exhortation, language, oil and general tinkering it refused to budge. Production slowed down and the management tore its hair.

At last an expert was called in. He carefully examined the machine for a few minutes, then called for a hammer. Briskly tapping here and there for about ten minutes, he announced that the machine was ready to move. It did.

Two days later the management received a bill for $250—the expert’s fee. The accountant was a righteous man who objected to overcharge. He demanded a detailed statement of the account.

He received this:
To tapping machine with hammer…$1.00
Knowing where to tap ………………$249.00

$1 prize to A. M. Mitchell, 9831 93rd Ave., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

In March and April 1922 the anecdote above was reprinted in other periodicals such as the “Minnesota Daily Star” of Minneapolis, Minnesota[ref] 1922 March 24, Minnesota Daily Star (The Minneapolis Star), Knowledge Is Power, Quote Page 17, Column 7, Minneapolis, Minnesota. ([/ref] and “The Rock Island Argus” of Rock Island, Illinois.[ref] 1922 April 13, The Rock Island Argus and Daily Union, Knowledge Is Power, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Rock Island, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Also in November 1922 the tale continued to circulate in England. “The Daily Mail” in East Riding of Yorkshire printed a condensed version with the following beginning. The total fee was still £10:[ref] 1922 June 6, The Daily Mail (Hull Daily Mail), The Expert, Quote Page 3, Column 2, East Riding of Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

In a Midland factory a huge, complicated piece of machinery suddenly stopped. In spite of exhortation, language, oil and general tinkering it refused to budge.

In 1928 an article by Charles R. Wiers presented a variant with a bolt that required twisting:[ref] 1928 April, The Rotarian, Other Business Contacts by Charles R. Wiers, Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, Column 1 and 2, Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

You have heard the story of the skilled mechanic who was called into a factory because a certain machine had stopped and wouldn’t run. When the job was completed the mechanic sent in a bill for $200.00 for only a few minutes’ work. This charge impressed the president as being excessive, so he ordered the bill sent back to be itemized. Upon its return it read this way—“Turning one bolt, $1.00; knowing which bolt to turn, $199.00.”

In 1937 an astute automotive repair service employed the anecdote in a novel and critical manner within an advertisement:[ref] 1937 August 5, The Whitewright Sun, Advertisement for “Red Pace Garage” titled: 20 Years of Knowing How, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Whitewright, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

I’m not like the machinist who was called to service something-or-other and made a charge of fifty dollars. The customer, reminding him that all he did was tap the machine with a hammer, was advised that a charge of one dollar was made for tapping; and forty-nine dollars for knowing where to tap.

Well, I’m not like that. I charge only for what I do. My “knowing how” doesn’t cost you anything extra.

In 1955 Princeton University Professor of Chemistry Hubert N. Alyea spoke to high school science students in Iowa and wittily described expertise:[ref] 1955 October 30, The Des Moines Sunday Register, Tell Student of Sciences to Read, Too by Robert Barewald (Register Staff Writer), Quote Page 7-L, Column 4, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

To be good scientists, Dr. Alyea told the students, they also must be expert and successful. “An expert is someone like the plumber who sends a $25 bill for fixing a water pipe merely by tapping it,” he illustrated.

The bill says, ‘$1 for taping the pipe and $24 for knowing where to tap.'”

In 1965 “LIFE” magazine printed a letter from Jack B. Scott whose father had worked for Henry Ford for many years. Scott recounted one of his father’s tales about the prominent electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz who had died back in 1923. When a massive new generator at Ford’s River Rouge plant broke down the local engineers were baffled and Steinmetz was called upon for help:[ref] 1965 March 14, LIFE, Letters to the Editors (Letter from Jack B. Scott, O’Fallon, Illinois), Quote Page 27, Column 3 and 4, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

For two straight days and nights he listened to the generator and made countless computations. Then he asked for a ladder, a measuring tape and a piece of chalk. He laboriously ascended the ladder, made careful measurements and put a chalk mark on the side of the generator. He descended and told his skeptical audience to remove a plate from the side of the generator and take out 16 windings from the field coil at that location.

The corrections were made and the generator then functioned perfectly. Subsequently Ford received a bill for $10,000 signed by Steinmetz for G.E. Ford returned the bill acknowledging the good job done by Steinmetz but respectfully requesting an itemized statement. Steinmetz replied as follows:

Making chalk mark on generator $1.
Knowing where to make mark $9,999.
Total due $10,000.

The story has continued to evolve. In 1977 political commentator George Will shared this version:[ref] 1977 May 19, The Corpus Christi Times, Welfare reform: Knowing where to ‘tap’ is important by George Will, Quote Page 14A, Column 5, Corpus Christi, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

A town’s electricity generator failed and various engineers were unable to fix it, so an elderly professor was summoned. He examined the generator carefully, then tapped it lightly once with a hammer, and power was instantly restored. He submitted his bill for $1,000.02 and itemized it: “Tapping — $.02. Knowing where to tap — $l,000.”

In conclusion, the 1908 version is currently the earliest known to QI who hypothesizes that subsequent tales were derived directly or indirectly from that instance or a precursor. QI suspects that almost all of the stories are fictitious. Yet, some bills may have been shaped by knowledge of the anecdote. Perhaps the Steinmetz story was embellished.

(Great thanks to Alan R. Hesketh whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to discussants Dan Goncharoff, Wilson Gray, and Neal Whitman. Special thanks to James A. Landau for pointing out the existence of the Steinmetz anecdote. In addition, thanks to discussants at Snopes and Metafilter.)

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