Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1875:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, history repeated. 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.

It's unnerving when you finally feel the full impact of having written a book. I recently finished my book Inventing Modern, and that impact is just becoming clear. In it, I painted my portrait of the period from the late nineteenth, to the middle twentieth, century. I talked about forces that sent us spinning off into a radical departure from every known machine, science, and art.

All that had been on my mind for years. I grew up with the taste and texture of late days of the Modern world. Radical new sciences had echoed around me, and I was surrounded by dramatic new technologies, sciences, and arts that reinforced one another. Later, I did hundreds of radio episodes describing that era.

However, merely knowing is not life-altering. Once we organize what we know, so we can tell others about it, things shift. Understanding-transmitted becomes understanding-magnified, as well as understanding-altered. This will sound strange, but when I go back and read my own words, I learn from them what I didn't know before. And what I learn is just how profoundly the early twentieth century departed from all we knew, and all we were, before it.

To see what happened, look at the popular child development book, Ages and Stages. It explains child growth as a series of plateaus. Take, for example, walking: A child, now adept at crawling, scuttles around the house. Then she begins pulling herself to a standing position, more and more eager to walk on two legs. Here begins an interlude of intense frustration. Finally, she walks; finds her new plateau, and is, once again, strong and confident.

And so it goes. We reached a huge plateau in the late nineteenth century. We seemed to have classical physics, impressionist art, steam and electric power, all under control. But we'd pulled ourselves into a standing position. Now impressionism held seeds of modern art. Electricity held seeds of quantum mechanics.

As I finished writing the book, I realized this was probably the highest plateau we'd ever scaled. What lay ahead in the early twentieth century was greater change than the Medieval Renaissance of the twelfth century, or the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth. It was a huge intellectual and technological upheaval.

Now, having written all this, I grow acutely sensitized to our present situation. We've been on our plateau for a long time. The computer has been sending warning signals that suggest a huge intellectual shift. The texture of war and conflict is an omen of great shifts in the social order. And physics, with its string theories, dark matter, and such, hints at a stunning renewal.

We are children who've pulled ourselves into a standing position, and not yet learned to walk. Our frustration is immense, but all the elements are in place. Things look very bad. However, the rim of a new, and unexpected, plateau in human affairs is just at the edge of our reach. We invented Modern a century ago. What, oh what, are we on the edge of inventing now?

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

(Theme music)

J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Inventing Modern

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.