Today, we wonder how much things change in one
generation. 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.
The other day, Don Ham, who
produces this series, wondered what technology he'd
miss if he were back in the '60s again. How much
change has he adapted to, unconsciously? It's an
When Don was a kid in the early '60s, he'd never
seen color TV, microwave ovens, personal computers,
or even pocket calculators. The '60s seem like
yesterday to me. Did I really survive them without
a word processor? We didn't have digital displays,
touch-tone phones, VCRs, or cable TV. Orbiting
satellites didn't speed our communications. There
was no electronic banking. Airline tickets were
written by hand. I try to remember not having
cassette tapes -- not being able to carry my own
music in the car.
Yet many things have hardly changed at all.
Automobiles may be more comfortable, but they don't
get us around any faster. How much has air travel
changed since the first jets flew in the '50s? The
technological revolution that has occurred has been
focused on manipulating information. We have
control over our knowledge that was unimaginable
three decades ago.
From my childhood in the '30s until the early 60s,
I saw a lot less new technology that was
life-altering. Medicine came a long way, of course
-- dentistry left the stone age between the '30s
and '60s. Air transport settled into an established
pattern of jet traffic. The national highway system
came of age.
But go back a generation further still. Then you'll
find real change. My father was born in 1893 --
born into a life without telephones, autos, radios,
airplanes, electric lights, or electric power. The
major technologies that came into use at the
beginning of this century were large-scale systems
that involved power. They were the spawn of the
industrial revolution. Those technologies rewrote
American life during my father's youth. And, as a
child, I was acutely aware that I'd been born into
a changed world. The fabric of things had really
been ripped out and rewoven.
But today's information revolution has yet to show
its full force. We're just finding out what it
means to control information. The control of
knowledge means control of resources, elimination
of waste -- control of our material world. It means
we'll have to find new ways to relate to the
products of our own minds. Like my father, your
young children won't grow up on the same planet
that their parents did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1757.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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