Today, we wonder how to make a book. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
For years, listeners have
asked when Engines would come out as a book.
That's an unnerving question since the radio
programs are tuned to the human voice and ear, not
to silent paper. (It's like asking when a book will
become a movie. Excellent books often make lousy
movies.) The first person to ask for an Engines
book was Bill Begel, then president of Hemisphere
Publishing Corporation. He signed me on to write
one eleven years ago. It was to be a heavily
illustrated collection of the first year's
A curious set of events followed: Begel sold his
company to another company which then sold it to a
third. The book came to rest with a technical
handbook company where it lay forgotten. The
project dropped off everyone's radar screen, even
I should've realized then that I was trying to make
a good movie into a bad book. But people who knew
and liked the program kept asking for the published
scripts. Meantime, another wrinkle pointed the way
to the central problem.
When Engines went on the web, in 1997, the book
that people had been asking for was right there -
all the scripts with references, links, and
pictures. However I immediately began getting
requests that audio accompany the Web version.
Engines really was an audio product. People go to
the Web to find information, not for the
companionship of sound - or of a book.
By then, yet another publisher had picked up the
book and was trying to convert it into print. His
company also went out of business before the book
was published. But he then took a position with
Oxford University Press, and he brought the book
with him. When the senior editor at Oxford saw it,
he said, "People won't read collections of short scripts. They'll go away feeling empty. People want to read a through-composed book."
I started to resist, but I knew he was right.
Besides, the through-composition was there, in my
head. It'd taken shape over the intervening years.
It was a tissue that'd formed itself from all those
I was startled to hear myself saying to him,
"Okay, I'll go back and completely rewrite it." Within a
few months the Lego blocks of the individual
scripts had formed themselves into a sum-mary view
of technology that I'd been forming for years. When
the book had finally written itself, I read it with
a peculiar kind of surprised third-party interest.
So the book could only come to pass after I'd
learned a hard lesson. It was that the book cannot
be the movie. One thing may become another, but
only by undergoing metamorphosis. This book was
there all the time. But I couldn't get at it
without first stepping free of the radio program. I
still love radio with all its wonderful transient
immediacy. But to find the book I had to leave
radio behind and enter a far different, and much
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lienhard, J. H., The Engines of Our Ingenuity.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
For more on the book see the back cover by
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.