Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1558:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1558.

Today, an old debate in a new arena. 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.

We've talked about the wonderful Greek word tecnh. It means technique or skill in making either art or artifacts. In early Homeric Greece a sculptor or a mason was viewed with respect. For later Greeks, during the Golden Age of Athens, that shifted.

Plato said that tecnh was an innate human virtue. At the same time he said quite clearly that members of the ruling class shouldn't mess with technique because they had enough to do without it. Tecnh was the work of the underclass -- slaves and foreigners. Philosophy was another matter -- a higher order of work.

The superb mechanician Archimedes talked the same way a century later. Plutarch tells how Archimedes so impressed his king with levers and pulleys that the king asked him to develop weapons. Archimedes said no. He said, the work of an engineer and every art that ministers to the needs of life [is] ignoble and vulgar.

The Greek orator Antiphon cast light on that unsettling remark when he said: Mastered by nature, we o'ercome by art. Antiphon saw artisans in the business of tricking nature. A lever or a pulley was a gadget that mocked the natural order of things.

So Archimedes went beyond the Athenian Greeks when he applied mathematics to machinery. He knew he was crossing the line by mixing philosophy with base art. He wanted to cast his lot with natural philosophers, not with tricksters.

The Greeks made their mark on western thinking right down to this very day because they gave philosophy and theoretical thinking such a place of honor. The Romans after them gave little to philosophy, math, or science. Nor did they put much stock in invention. The Romans were superb organizers and builders, but their imprint on western thinking was far less than the Greeks'.

So I think you see the problem here. It's the same problem we face in our schools today. Archimedes practiced his mechanics, and his keen understanding of what machines could do, in a world that protected theoretical knowledge. That protection broke down in the Roman world. The Romans were able to coast for a few centuries on what the Greek world had provided. Then their establishment fell apart. At the same time, the Greeks had limited themselves by failing to honor the process of overcoming nature by art.

The great scientists of later ages like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein all of them walked tightropes on these matters. Each, like Archimedes, stirred a shrewd knowledge of tecnh in along with hard abstract thought. But each of them also donned the camouflage of the prevailing attitudes around them.

These are matters to think about as we try to repair modern education. When we quote Antiphon, we'd better understand that, if o'ercoming nature by art means tricking nature, it's only in the sense of knowing how to go with nature's flow. It ultimately has to mean showing our students how to honor theoretical understanding, and letting their hands touch tools, at the same time.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Klemm, F., A History of Western Technology. Cambridge, MS: The M.I.T. Press, 1964.

Amphora image

Image from a Greek amphora, 500 BC. Observers watching smiths at work.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H. Lienhard.