Today, we try to construct an aphorism. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
An aphorism is a concise
statement of a principle. It's just a bit more
direct than an adage or a motto. The most famous
aphorism of all is Hippocrates' statement about the
art of medicine. He said, "Life is short, the art
is long, opportunity fleeting, experience delusive,
I want to try an aphorism on you. Years ago, after
I gave a talk on technology, someone asked, "Do you
mean good people make good machines and bad people
make bad machines?" I didn't want to consent to
such a simplistic statement so I chewed the air for
a moment. Finally, I was shocked to hear myself
saying, "Why, yes. That's right. Good people do
make good machines and bad people do make bad
I'd been handed an aphorism that was both dangerous
and compelling in its simplicity. So let's see how
it holds up:
First of all, I doubt I've ever met a wholly good
or bad person. But I've certainly watched people
act on both good and bad intentions. Second, it's
very clear that machines reflect us -- that we are
what we make. That's why machines provide the
metaphors we use all the time to make sense of
We tell each other that a tornado descends like a
hammer, an efficient person functions like a Swiss
watch, a friend is an open book, a fine machine is
the Cadillac of such devices. We look for the
needle in the haystack. We stay out of the gears of
a bad situation. A good basketball team works with
clock-like precision. Our metaphors are
Our machines turn into metaphors because we build
ourselves into them. Machines that survive are the
ones we've invested with the best of ourselves when
we make them.
In 1883 a friend of Hiram Maxim said to him, "If
you want to make your fortune, invent something to
help these fool Europeans kill each other more
quickly!" By 1885 the brilliant and inventive Maxim
had created the first single-barrel machine gun. It
fired 666 rounds a minute and it changed warfare.
After the Russo- Japanese War, Maxim proudly said,
"more than half the Japanese killed in the late war
were killed with the little Maxim Gun."
So was this a good machine or a bad one? Was Maxim
a good man or bad? It all depends on how you hold
each up to the light. Either way, the man and the
machine mirrored one another perfectly.
So my aphorism (maybe I should call it a maxim) is
circular. No matter how we define good and bad, it
has to come out true because what we make is what
we are. That's why good people really do make good
machines and bad people make bad machines. The
weakness in all this is, it says nothing about the
lingering, age-old, problem of telling good from
bad. Nevertheless, it's a fact we're well advised
to remember when we make anything.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the Maxim example see Episode 694 and/or the following
Maxim, H., My Life. London: Methuen
& Co., Ltd., 1915.
Hogg, I., The Weapons that Changed the
World. New York: Arbor House, 1986, pp.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image provided by Margaret
A typical WW-I machine gun, the immediate
the Maxim gun and the cause of millions of WW-I
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