Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2125

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a window into themechanics of media persuasion. 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.

Title page I've just found a disturbing old volume in our library stacks -- an 1851 edition combining two books bound under a single cover. One is titled Religious Emblems, the other Religious Allegories. It's disturbing because it aims to teach and uplift us through the use of what can only be called cartoons.

Caricatures and comic representations are very old. Cathedral gargoyles were often fanciful images of the masons who'd made the buildings. Hogarth honed social/political cartoons in the mid-eighteenth century. But, in 1843, Punch magazine made them a regular part of each issue, and created the name cartoon to describe those distinctive humorous/satiric drawings.

So these books are an immediate adoption of a new medium of persuasion. The first, Religious Emblems, appeared just three years after the cartoon was named. It was soon followed by Religious Allegories, which differs only in that it has more text per picture.

Each section of each book offers a cartoon, followed by a text about its theme -- eighty cartoons in all. Example: A girl is shown embracing a serpent while she reels in terror from an approaching cricket. Below it, a quote from Corinthians says, "Be not children in understanding." The next three pages explain that childish thinking embraces evil while it fears harmless things. The words, however, are pretty much after-the-fact. The picture is what will capture our eye and heart.

Child's understanding All this just serves to remind us that the persuaders in any society will always be among the first to pick up any new medium of persuasion. Much of radio was still being heard on crystal sets when evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson set up her own broadcast studio in 1924. Nine years later, Roosevelt became the fully-honed master at using radio for his political ends.

I watched Kennedy and Nixon duking it out on my embryonic TV set in 1960, and I knew the world was shifting under my feet. Now my email in-box is bloated with forwarded blogs, all trying to re-adjust my thinking on every topic. An army of persuaders threatens to undo us in our media-dense world.

That's why I like Public Radio, a medium that, with few exceptions, seeks to persuade no one -- only to offer information. Perhaps that should be a reminder that not all religion is entangled in the personal power that goes with persuasion, nor are all politicians, nor are all the media they use.

So I leave you with a cartoon from this old book that I might paste on the wall: One longshoreman quietly coils his rope while another fumes and screams over a rope that he's hopelessly tangled. Under the picture two quotations: "The fool rageth," and "Let patience have her perfect work." Now as then, persuaders rage at our emotions, but far more of the voices you hear have no snake oil to sell. And they're the ones really letting patience do its work.

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

(Theme music)

W. Holmes and J. W. Barber, Emblems & Allegories. (Cincinnati, OH: John H. Johnson, 1851)

The Holmes/Barber book is interesting for its arrival so soon after Punch magazine began giving cartoons great prominence. I should point out, however, the use of cartoon images in religious literature has been used, on and off, for a very long time. Medieval stained glass windows were laid out like comic strips for congregations who were largely illiterate. In 1494, a scant 39 years after Gutenberg printed his Bible, 1494, Sebastian Brant's book Das Narrenschiff was a set of cartoons, accompanied by moralizing texts.

A fool raging

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.