Today, we meet the mother of invention, and she's
not the lady we expected. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Simple pan balances go back
to antiquity. Yet they're the basis for modern
scales that make the most exacting measurements. My
colleague James Casey tells me a remarkable thing
about this important practical device. He tells me
that its inventors didn't care a fig about weights
and measures. They were trying to express the
concept of balance, which is really quite subtle.
Blind-folded Lady Justice holds the law in one hand
and the scales of judgment in the other. She shows
us the scales -- the balance -- in quite abstract
terms. Good and evil weigh against each other, not
in kilograms or ounces, but in the common wisdom of
That theme is found in the ancient Egyptian Book of
the Dead, where souls are weighed against a
feather. A soul strikes its balance in life, and
that balance is felt on the scales of judgment. In
other societies, leaders weigh their bodies against
the tribute of their people.
It's a mistake to look at these transactions as
weighing and measuring. The concept of balance
reaches far beyond that. The scale originated as an
expression of that concept. It was created in the
laboratory of ritual observance. It found no role
as an instrument of commerce and science until much
later in human history.
The same thing is true of many older technologies.
Long before power-generating windmills arose in the
11th century, Buddhist monks used sails to spin
their prayer wheels. It's hard for us to understand
why the wind was used to drive prayer wheels long
before it was used to grind grain. Then we learn
that ancients in every land saw the wind as the
Breath of God and as a manifestation of the human
soul. In that context we can better see why it was
that ritual gave birth to the windmill.
There's no end to examples like this. The great
structures of the ancient world weren't built to
satisfy functional ends. No one ever lived in the
colossal Egyptian burial constructions. They were
born of ritual, and so too were the great Gothic
cathedrals of the 13th century.
We begin to understand technology when we realize
that it flows from something much more abstract
than a wish to fulfill practical needs. The people
who've actually created the great material
artifacts of our world have been propelled by far
deeper forces. They've been driven by the need to
express a primal understanding that quite
outreaches objective explanation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds