On one of the last days of my recent trip to Portland, we found out that our car had run out of batteries. Instead of starting, it just sat there when you turned the key. Fortunately, the guy parked in the car in front of us had jumper cables.

This entry isn’t primarily about how to jumpstart a car, but here’s what we did, so you know I’m legit:

  • Make sure both cars are off.

  • Then, use the jumper cable to attach the black terminal on your battery to the black terminal on your jumpstarter’s battery, and the red terminals likewise. (If you are missing color-coding, look for + or - signs. The point is to attach positive to positive and negative to negative).

  • Some people say you should attach the black battery terminal in the jumpstarter’s car to an unpainted metal surface under the jumpstart-ee’s hood, rather than the black terminal of the dead battery. Others say this doesn’t matter.

  • Start the jumpstarter’s car, and let the dead battery charge for a few minutes.

  • Finally, detach the cables, start your car, and drive around for a while (20 - 30 minutes) so that your engine can recharge your battery.

Let me now admit something: I had no idea about any of this. I think that’s a little strange. I’m a well-educated guy, old enough to be renting an apartment, paying taxes, moving around the country, etc. Jumpstarting a car literally took about ten seconds to learn, and turned out to be pretty important knowledge, not just because we needed to get the car started (though that’s very important), but also because of what it implies about understanding how cars and electricity work, at least on a rudimentary level.

It seems like this is worthwhile knowledge to have. And in fact, if you search for “how to jumpstart a car”, the first hit is a set of instructions laden with fairly strong judgments. “Every man should know how to jump start a dead car battery”, the site says. I’m not sure if I agree with “should” - is it really a moral imperative to have this knowledge? What about the many, many people in the world who don’t own cars? And why shouldn’t women also know how to do this, as my wife now does?

So, perhaps I don’t think everyone should know this. But it seems pretty worthwhile, and I wonder why it didn’t come up in eighteen years of formal schooling. Practically, it probably will come in handy again at least once in my life. And I think more broadly, it is important for people to understand what’s under the hood, or at least to cultivate an attitude of such understanding. Cars yes, and what about computers? Many people have very little understanding of, or curiosity about, how they work, and what to do when something goes wrong. A lot of the things we depend on every single day may as well run on magic.

I also think it’s interesting that jumpstarting a car is even possible. Cars are fairly advanced machines nowadays. And yet here is a sort of hack that’s survived even today in this venerable technology. But it’s only available to those of us who are willing to be hackers.

Should we revive home economics, shop, or other building / making classes in high school? Or perhaps this knowledge really is outdated for most people - those who want to know can teach themselves, and others may never need it?