Today, we ask what a century looks like. 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.
Have you ever thought about
the way centuries have personalities? Look
at the twentieth century. It's been an era of
decentralization. Quantum mechanics and relativity
theory fragmented reality. They entered along with
atonality, which dismantled hierarchy. And with
them came socialistic experiments in government.
The automobile and airplane decentralized cities.
The electric motor decentralized factories. And PCs
have finally been decentralizing workplaces.
Most of that had origins in the late nineteenth
century. But people like Einstein, Planck,
Schönberg, Henry Ford, Picasso, and the Wright
Brothers made their mark in the first few years of
the twentieth century. The nineteenth century had
been the epoch of heroic
materialism -- a centralization century
-- a time to make great monoliths of science,
empire, and industry. The personal steam car,
invented in the late eighteenth century, got
nowhere in the face of central rail systems.
Of course, the personalities of centuries overlap.
The personality of the nineteenth century ran from
the mid 1780s up to WW-I. In the eighteenth
century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, we
tried to recreate Classical order -- in science,
music, art, architecture. I suppose that began with
Newton in the 1680s and lasted until the Battle of
Waterloo. It ended only as the Romantic poets
finally gained a foothold on the Western
The seventeenth century has an especially distinct
face. Shakespeare's plays began announcing it in
the 1590s by changing the English language from the
complex metaphors of Elizabethan prose to far more
direct ways of saying things. In the early years of
the century, Galileo brought new observational
methods to science, and Francis Bacon formalized
Kepler made it clear that we could learn the
physical laws governing planetary motions. The
world became something we could take apart and
study. Hooke's microscope showed how insects were
microscope showed us germs. In 1675, Ole Roemer accurately measured the
speed of light. People began speculating about
life on other planets.
The seventeenth century was about all the wonderful
new ways of gaining knowledge.
So I look around and wonder what personality the
twenty-first century will have. We've gone from a
century of new science, to one of neoclassicism, to
one of heroic materialism, to decentralization.
History tells us we should already know what's
coming next. I find it a chilling thought that the
Einstein and the Picasso of the twenty-first
century already walk among us. But we don't yet
know who they are or what shape they'll give to our
grandchildren's lives. The new century is right
here at our elbow. But it's still invisible, and
it's still unpredictable.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds