The ideas about ceremony and technology are developed
nicely by Bronowski, J.,
Today, let's talk about ceremony and technology.
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.
My grandmother used to tell
me that if I burned my finger, I should dip it in
a cup of tea. People knew that long before
doctors knew anything about the healing power of
the tannic acid in tea. My grandmother's finely
honed intelligence was in no way lessened by the
fact that she'd never studied organic chemistry.
The art of Japanese samurai-sword-making is like
that. It reached an astonishing level of
perfection 1200 years ago. A samurai sword is a
wonderfully delicate and complex piece of
engineering. The steel of the blade is heated,
folded and beaten -- over and over -- until the
blade is formed by 32,768 layers, forge-welded to
one another. Each layer is a hundred thousandth
of an inch thick. All this is done to extremely
accurate standards of heat treatment. The result
is an obsidian-hard blade with willow-like
Those blades represented a perfection of
production standards that's yet to be matched by
modern quality control. The Japanese craftsmen
who made them knew nothing about temperature
measurement or the carbon content of steel. So
how do you suppose they made such perfection
reproducible? The answer's worth thinking about.
Sword-making was swathed in ceremony and ritual.
It was consistent because the ceremony was
precise and unvaried. The ceremony was beautiful
-- in action, dress, and color. Heat-treating
temperatures were set by holding the blade to the
color of the morning sun. The exact hue was
transmitted from master to apprentice down
through centuries. Sword-making was a Japanese
art form, subsumed into Japanese culture.
That sort of thing isn't unique to the Japanese.
It was true of 18th-century violin-making, and
it's still true wherever technology survives
independent of math and science. Ritual can
accomplish a great deal of what you and I do with
weights and measures. Our intelligence, after
all, runs deeper than mere gage reading. Our
great technologies rise out of a full range of
experience. They come from creativity that rides
on much more than tables of technical data. Good
technology is never independent of culture. The
best doctor knows organic chemistry, but he
doesn't forget his grandmother's folklore. The
best metallurgists know about the iron-carbon
phase diagram. But they can see it in the light
of a bright yellow-orange blade, emerging from
Years ago, I worked for a seasoned design
engineer. One day he looked at piece of equipment and said,
"Look at that heavy gear running on that skinny shaft. Some designer didn't use his eyes."
The best engineers know math, physics, and
thermodynamics. But they also know the world they
live in. The best engineers bring a visceral and
human dimension to the exacting math-driven,
science-based business of shaping the world
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the heat-treating process that yields
hardness and strength in a samurai sword, see: J. H. Lienhard IV and J. H. Lienhard V, A Heat Transfer Textbook. 3rd
ed., Cambridge, MA: Phlogiston Press, 2004, Click here for a free copy.