Today, we watch as a new device alters our lives.
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.
A friendly young man occupies
the seat to the left of mine. If you'd told me he
was a basketball player or a graduate student that
would've seemed reasonable. He could well be the
youngest of a group being inducted into the
National Academy of Engineering.
He's been using a hand-held device that looks like
a cell phone. Well, it is a cell phone.
But it's also a digital camera, music player, and
Internet reader with a color screen and small
keyboard. It displays a digital photo of his wife
This is Jeff Hawkins, architect of the Palm pilot
and now Chairman of the Handspring Company. He's
the architect of this new Treo 600 device.
Now the Academy President rises to say that it's
not enough to just hone the science and practice of
engineering; engineers must also see that we alter
and improve life on Earth. As he speaks, I glance
to my right. There's the engineer who made the chip
for Hawkins' new Treo 600. A few days
later, I find myself poring over the web -- reading
reviews and wondering if I should buy one.
So we need to ask whether this is a fancy toy, or a
true step forward in quality of life. The answer is
subtler than you might first expect. Think about
cars. During their first twenty years, automobiles
were generally more trouble than they were worth --
hi-tech toys for those who could afford them. But
that stage was absolutely needed before we could
integrate cars into everyday life.
Communications devices have been
burrowing into our lives ever since we read about
Dick Tracy's two-way radio watch in the comics.
We're now far beyond Dick Tracy, and our evolving
pocket communicators have turned from hi-tech
novelty into everyday expectation. Today, seventy
percent of American homes have cell phones. By the
time this episode is rerun, very few of us will be
Later on, another speaker promotes a future in
which we'll all carry pocket devices with terabyte
chips that hold all our personal software. He
foresees an infrastructure of public computer
screens and keyboards that we activate from our
Well, that's a speculated future, and an
interesting one. But these new devices are a
created future. In the end, we users
choose among the offerings of a vital and volatile
marketplace and mold ourselves to them. We shape
our future by what we reject and by what we take
into our lives. The future never unfolds as anyone
predicts. It unfolds only in the way we users
Now, a new mutation. Hawkins responds to us; then
revises according to our wishes. He's also founded
a non-profit Neuroscience Institute to work on
mathematical models of the human brain. In the end,
this isn't about making money, but about plunging
into the human process. What I've just
caught is a glint of the vast sun-spray of
ingenuity that constantly shapes us. And we'd
better remember that you and I are players
in that rich essential process.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on Handspring, Hawkins, and the Treo
600, see: http://www.handspring.com/index.jhtml
Jeff Hawkins holding the Handspring Treo
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.