Today, we look for the oldest technology. 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.
So what do you suppose the
oldest technology might be? Farming came late in
history. Before farming, settled herdsmen and
gatherers made clothing, knives, tents, spears. But
so did nomads before them. Go back further: picture
painting was the technology that heralded the Upper
Paleolithic Stone Age. We all know the magnificent
cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux.
But archaeologists have also found evidence of
rattles, drums, pipes and shell trumpets from that
period (although the sounds are, alas, gone). And
the Bible, the chronology of the Hebrew tribes,
identifies musical-instrument-making as one of
three technologies that arose in the seventh and
eighth generations after Adam.
As we move back into the Stone Age, the artifacts
peter out. But that doesn't mean the technologies
of music-making weren't present. We have evidence
of another kind. It is that music is a huge
presence in societies with the least technology on
earth. Australian Aborigine culture is defined by
its song, dance, musical instruments, and poetry.
We have the sure knowledge that whales sing -- that
the animal urge to make music precedes, not only
artifacts, but our own presence on earth. And,
while music is the most accessible art, it is, at
the same time, the most sophisticated. In any age,
music-making becomes every bit as complex as any
other technology in a society. So I offer
music-making as my candidate for the oldest
technology of all.
But our own experience tells us more than
archaeology does. Experience tells us that music is
primal. It is not just a simple pleasure. In
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice,
Jessica says to Lorenzo: I am never merry when
I hear sweet sounds of music,... Lorenzo
answers her: The reason is your spirits
are attentive. ... The man that hath no
music in himself ... is fit for treasons, ...
And we know perfectly well what he means. If we
can't respond to art, to music, then something
is missing. We are fit for treason. Music
helps us understand the human lot. Music is as
functional as any worthwhile technology. Its
function is to put reality in terms that make
sense, and that means dramatizing what we see --
transmuting it into something more than is obvious.
Poet Wallace Stevens said that wonderfully well
when he wrote,
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
Stevens's blue guitar -- music, or any art -- does
change reality. It turns the human dilemma around
until we see it in perspective. Sometimes it takes
us through grief and pain to do that. It disturbs
us at the same time it comforts us. But it serves
an absolutely fundamental human need.
And that, beyond history or archaeology,
is why music-making has always been the primal
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The conversation between Lorenzo and Jessica takes
place in Act V, Scene 1 of The Merchant of
Stevens, W., The Man with the Blue Guitar. The
Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York:
Albert A. Knopf, 1982.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 137.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.