Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2147:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we wonder which technologies last. 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.

I've often argued that technologies linger, even when new ones take up their functions, if they've become part of our metaphorical language, for we do live by metaphors. Now I realize that some technologies are built upon stronger metaphors than others. And the strongest are those tied to the function of our own bodies.

Consider some survivors: Pencils and pens survive word processors; books survive (indeed they thrive) in the presence of the Internet. Live concerts seem more ubiquitous now than they were before we had transistor-based, and digital, audio systems.

An inventor recently sent me a new paper clip. It works well, but so many people have tried to improve the familiar Gem clip, which pinches like our fingers -- and which has lasted over a century. The old standard clothespin, the one that looks like wooden scissors with a metal spring in the center, was patented in 1853. It's still being made, and it dawns on me how beautifully it mimics the pinching action of thumb and forefinger.

Then there's the pencil: Remember this verse by Omar Khayyam?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Omar is paraphrasing the Biblical story of Belshazzar's feast: In the same hour came forth fingers of a man's hand, and wrote ... upon the plaster of the wall. Suddenly the imagery of the pen or a pencil as the extension of our finger is very clear. Indeed, our fingers on a touch pad or touch screen now reclaim that metaphor.

Once we begin playing this game, it's hard to stop. Thousands of mouse trap patents have been awarded since the old snap trap came out, but it still prevails. What is it, but a replica of our jaw snapping shut upon a mouse. (Yukkk! But there it is.) The analog watch replicates the sun moving in a great arc from dawn on the left, to high noon overhead to dusk on the right. (I know: that's troublesome if we're not facing south.) An open book is like our open hands, offering a gift.

Radio arrived during the lifetimes of a few people who're still living. Yet it soon grew old in the whirl of communication technologies that followed -- talking movies, television, the Internet. So how do we account for its longevity? More radio is heard today than when I was a child -- before TV.

Well, here's yet another metaphor of human equivalence. Radio doesn't demand constant eye contact the way TV does. When we sit and chat with a friend we look about -- at the stars or at the road. We absorb a friend through our ears. What most listeners sense, but may not fully understand, is that we at the radio station don't talk to a microphone. Instead, we talk to one of you. Just one. And that is the entire reason radio also survives, in the face of what should be insurmountable competition.

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

(Theme music)

I talk about many of these technologies in other episodes (Use the Search function on the web site.) See also a recent article, A. Lahey, The Better Clothespin. Invention & Technology, Fall 2006, pp. 38-43.

Technologies that survive
(photos by JHL)

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