Page last updated at 23:31 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 00:31 UK

'The godfather of instruction manuals'

By Mark Miodownik

Hillman Imp Haynes Manual
The manuals have become known around the world

In 1987 as I bought my first Haynes instruction manual, I was quite unprepared for the look of respect that I got from the mechanic who sold it to me.

At the age of 18 I was only used to looks ranging from disinterest to hostility from engineers, but buying the Haynes instruction manual for my car - an old Morris Minor 1100 - suddenly marked me out as someone with credibility.

So five cars later, five Haynes manuals later, and many years of spotting Haynes manuals in people's houses and giving them that look of respect, it was with tremendous anticipation that I found myself making a Radio 4 programme on instruction manuals and about to meet the man himself, the godfather of instruction manuals, John Haynes.

We tracked down the man in the Somerset headquarters of his publishing company, which looks like a cross between a dairy farm and rural village complete with pub, small paths between the out-buildings and orchards, and reassuringly, plenty of vintage cars in the car park (I spotted my beloved Morris Minor).

Early start

John Haynes himself was ensconced in a large shady office, emerging from behind a huge desk full of models of cars and stacked with instruction manuals; he looked like Father Christmas but with the twinkle in the eye of Willy Wonka.

He is the man whose love of cars started him on the road to produce the first instruction manuals on how to repair and care for cars in the 1950s.

John Haynes and Mark Miodownik

Haynes manuals are the most famous instruction manuals in the world, having sold 150 million copies worldwide and will mark their 50th anniversary in 2010.

To this day, the Haynes manual for a particular make of car is the last word on the subject.

The practical, hardback books came into being when a young Mr Haynes, tinkering with his first car, realised he could improve on the instruction manuals given out by car manufacturers.

At the age of 16 while still at school, he bought an Austin Seven Saloon, dismantled it, and built a lightweight, open two-seater sports car.

Then he had an idea.

"I thought to myself if I produce a booklet about how I built this Austin Seven Special, because there was nothing published in those days, I might sell a hundred copies in a couple of months."

But it only took 10 days to sell all the copies, which made him realise that there was a gap in the market for car instruction manuals that gave detailed instructions on how to repair and maintain different models of car.

Listen to the programme
How to Write An Instruction Manual is presented by Dr Mark Miodownik, an engineer from King's College London
It will be broadcast on Radio 4 on 21 August at 1100 BST
The programme will be available to download as a podcast from Friday 21 - Thursday 27 Aug via the Radio 4 Choice webpage

John Haynes's ethos is "above all be honest, tell them how it really is, step-by-step".

The manuals have since become the archetype of a technological reference manual for home use, designed for non-experts to become more acquainted with machines: every car is completely stripped down, rebuilt and photographed in the course of making each manual.

Haynes manuals now cover many subjects including motorcycles, computers, spacecraft, and there are even manuals with titles such as Man, Woman and Cancer, which come under the Family series.

'Cars are cars'

Yet, despite this wave of popularity, Haynes does not produce manuals for all the menagerie of modern gadgets that now surround us.

Neither have device manufacturers chosen to fill the void and produce a range of simple "how-to"s for taking apart everyday gadgets.

Haynes Sex manual
The manuals have branched out from their original subject matter

The reasons for this are perhaps two-fold.

The first is that society has become less curious in how machines work - they are no longer a novelty.

We are surrounded by complicated machines and if we had to understand how each worked and how each could be repaired it would take up much of our leisure time.

Secondly, the economic reward for looking after things is growing smaller.

Increasingly the manufacturers of machines do not design them to be repaired, and so it is often cheaper and easier to throw the mobile phone, fridge or toaster away rather than repair it.

The increased use of electronics in cars has led many to suggest the same process is now happening to cars and that they will soon be irreparable, making Haynes manuals mere relics of a bygone age.

But Mr Haynes is not worried; cars are cars, he says.

"Underneath the electronics you have got all the same mechanical functions," he said.

"You have got valves going up and down, you have got pistons going up and down, you have got bearings wearing out, so basically all the work is still there to be done."

It wasn't just John Haynes, but all his staff and family, which impressed me.

I came away with the feeling that I had visited the nexus of a powerful force in the world, a place filled with the guardian angels of cars.

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