Today, we learn to drive our own cars -- and manage
our own computers. 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.
Historian Kevin Borg talks
about a 1906 headline in the New York Times:
"Chauffeurs Lord It Over Their Employers." The
headline typified a rising problem in the first
days of the automobile. The wealthy were having
trouble with a new breed of servant.
Before the 20th century, only the wealthy owned the
fancy sort of carriage
that was driven by a coachman. A separate
staff of servants would typically care for the
horses and equipment, and do the driving. When
automobiles first came on the market, it was those
same wealthy owners who could afford them. So
coachmen became the natural heirs to the care and
handling of autos. But, of course, they could not
have been more wrong for the job.
The first automobiles needed constant repair. In
1903, Cadillac advertised
that, "When you buy a Cadillac, you buy a round trip."
That meant, of course, that it might get you
home before it broke down.
The role of the head coachman was well defined.
Toward his superiors, he was deferential and
obedient. He skimmed the salaries of servants that
he managed and money he received for supplies. He
had neither the talents nor the temperament of a
Now coachmen had to be replaced by a new kind of
employee. But twentieth-century mechanics had the
egalitarian instincts of people who'd created
automobiles in the first place. They had no sense
of the old social stratification and weren't about
to play that game.
They ran roughshod over their new bosses. They went
joyriding in the expensive cars in their care. Of
course, they too skimmed their operations money,
but they did so without the veneer of social
decorum. They were in control, for who else could
deal with those terribly complex new machines?
By the end of WW-I, two things had happened with
automobiles. They stopped needing constant repair,
and their owners learned to drive them. Chauffeurs
didn't vanish, but they did lose their power. A new
kind of boss/employee relationship stabilized.
That same drama plays out in any new technology. I
spent years at the mercy of technical typists. They
were underpaid, but they were in control. When word
processors came on the market, I was first in line
to buy one. It was my ticket out of a relationship
that degraded everyone.
During the past twenty years, the typist and the
file clerk have been replaced with computers and
with people who know how to use them. And what
about power? Well, it's now in the hands of whoever
really understands those computers. Sometimes those
are the people in the data-entry trenches;
sometimes it's their bosses. In large organizations
we find computer specialists. And they're in danger
of falling into the same role as those early
So knowledge is power, all right, but it's
temporary power. For knowledge flows. What
one person knows, another can also know. The only
people condemned to be bossed about by others are
the ones who deny their own ability to learn.
They're the ones who fear their own automobile --
or their own computer.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds