Today, we invent boys. 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.
Britain and America began turning into a serious
industrial powers, their populations drifted off
the farm and into cities. Social theoreticians began asking
what would become of young boys as they lost the
rough and tumble of living next to nature. Would
they lose the verve, needed to grow them into
These same concerns drove the Arts and Crafts
Movement — first in Great Britain, then in America
and other countries. By the late nineteenth
century, we find a whole new literature of books
for young people. They told us that we needed to
work with our hands. We needed to stay connected
with the agrarian world.
Much of this literature began focusing on boys in
unexpected ways. British author George Henty poured
forth historical novels about very young men taking
incredible risks. A flood of how-to-do-it manuals told boys
how to build their own pipe bombs, air-planes, and
X-ray machines. It seemed sissified to talk about
safety, so no one did.
And so two seemingly contradictory movements fed
one another. One was the arts and crafts reform
movement; the other, this spate of instructions
telling boys to go forth and build the brave new
world with their own two hands. The ideas
intertwined like the tendrils of art nouveau. And
art nouveau was the banner for the whole business.
Its busy organic designs were woven through the
books that told young boys to go out and risk their
Charles Dickens was another force stirring up the
anti-industrial mood of the Arts and Crafts
Movement. And he fell into the same trap when he
likewise proclaimed the wild-child concept of boyhood.
In this startling passage from his 1853 novel
Bleak House, a character says to a boy,
My young friend, it is because you know nothing
that you are to us a gem and jewel. For what are
you, my young friend? Are you a beast of the field?
No. A bird of the air? No. A fish of the sea or
river? No. You are a human boy, my young friend. A
human boy. O glorious to be a human boy! And why
glorious, my young friend? Because you are capable
of receiving the lessons of wisdom, because you are
capable of profiting by this discourse which I now
deliver for your good, because you are not a stick,
or a staff, or a stock, or a stone, or a post, or a
Then he adds this remarkable couplet:
O running stream of sparkling joy
To be a soaring human boy!
Dickens lays a great responsibility upon a young
boy. If soaring meant a buoyant soul to
Dickens, the term had mutated sixty years later
when Popular Mechanics literally advised
boys to build their own glider and soar off a cliff in it.
And so the call to retain and rediscover the arts
and crafts led two generations of soaring boys to
build the twentieth century into a vast
techno-empire. In the end, it vastly hastened
exactly what it had tried to oppose.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For a more detailed development of these ideas, see:
J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with
X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, New York:
Oxford University Press, August, 2003, Chapters 12
(clipart from a nineteenth century issue of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.