Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1740:
ED WOOD AND REVOLUTION

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a bad movie and radical change. 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.

If we now live in a postmodern era, when did we enter it? When did Modern end? I was raised in the 1930s with the word modern whirling about my ears. We were a modern people in a modern age. We had automobiles, radios, airplanes, telephones, and we knew we'd soon have television as well. The atmosphere was charged with expectations for technological change and an ever-better life.

That shifted in the 1950s. New miracles lay ahead, of course, but computers, the Internet, and our dramatically longer lives were not yet on our radar screens. Instead, we emerged from WW-II filled with a new fear of the technologies we'd already created.

As a Berkeley graduate student in the late fifties, I worked on the way boiling water moderated nuclear fission in a power reactor. The atom was a clear presence in our lives, and I had by then glimpsed only from the corner of my eye how we'd begun living in fear -- not just of the atom, but of all the technologies we'd created.

My wife and I were both in school, working hard. Saturday nights we'd decompress by heading off to The New Peerlex Theater down in Oakland. They ran triple features of every trashy science-fiction movie of the fifties: The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Plan 9 from Outer Space--you name it; we saw it.

One of those movies stayed with us -- Ed Wood's wonderfully dreadful Bride of the Monster. Bad as it was, it had one unforgettable line that perfectly captured what was going on around us. Near the end, the despairing mad scientist, Bela Lugosi, turns upon the camera with terrible intensity and says,

Home. I have no home. Hunted...despised...living like an animal -- the jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people -- a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!

We chortled, left the theater, and went back to work not at all understanding how powerfully Lugosi (and all the others like him) had spoken to the public. I went back to building my Faltung integral for the increase of void fraction during a transient power surge. I kept dreaming of safe core cooling and cheap power.

It was soon clear enough that we would not see nuclear-powered cars or airplanes for a long time. Worse than that, we'd all heard Bela Lugosi promising terrible transmutations of the human species. The movie Them promised thirty-foot ants. We were somehow back to alchemy: if we could transmute uranium, couldn't we just as well transmute a frog into Godzilla?

So the public grew afraid. Science and high technology, once so full of hope, now brought fear: fear of the bomb, fear of transmutation gone rampant, fear of the Russians.

Modern evaporated for a season. Technology and its potential for serving us are still there to be claimed. It would be nice to see it once again awakening the intensity of hope that surrounded me as a child, so long ago.

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

(Theme music)


The movie Bride of the Monster was directed by Ed Wood and released in 1956.

To see the wonderful Bela Lugosi scene Click Here.

H.A. Johnson, V.E. Schrock, F.B. Selph, J.H. Lienhard, and Z.R. Rosztoczy, "Transient Pool Boiling of Water at Atmospheric Pressure," Int. Dev. in Heat Transfer, ASME, N.Y., 1963, p. 244 et seq.


Bride of the Monster



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.