Today, a future takes form. 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.
My issue of the 1885 Scientific American magazine
exposes the difficulty of science and technology reporting. We need to know what's
happening because the present hints at how the future is being built. But the present
only hints; it does not reveal.
Example: A student just asked me about the influence, and the future, of the Kindle
digital book. I had to say that we'd know only when that future was formed. The
Kindle could well survive and gain traction. But today, it's as far from its mature
form as the Wright Brother's airplane was. Maybe instead of being like a Wright
airplane, the Kindle will be more like a Hindenburg airship. But, either way, we want
to trace its progress.
With that in mind, let's see what held promise a century and a quarter ago: The cover
picture is an etching of a new British cruiser, HMS Imperieuse. It has modern
gun turrets and copper sheathing along with two tall masts for sails. Far from being
a portent of the future, this was the ugly duckling of a technological transition.
Later, they chopped off the masts and put it into limited peacetime service. And it
was scrapped even before WW-I. But turn the page, and we find something quite different
-- an article about the potential of a new torpedo boat for making big gunships obsolete.
We find many more futures-in-the-making here -- like plans for a large public park around
Niagara Falls. That's a place you've probably visited. An article praises the good work
being done by the new Cooper Union College -- teaching technology
to the citizens of New York City. And Cooper Union remains strong today.
Then there's an article about the great French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. He's
finished the Suez Canal and is now setting out to build a Panama Canal. De Lesseps would
give up in defeat after some 22,000 workers died, mostly of
Yellow Fever. America finished the job in 1914 -- at the cost
of another 5600 lives.
So the future did emerge from these articles, though in unexpected forms. Only a few
items were true dead ends -- like a button hook that mounts on your boot so it'll be
there when you need it.
The advertisements also show the future unfolding: This is two years after the Brooklyn
Bridge opened and its builder, John Roebling, is selling, not the bridge, but wire rope
and pulleys. The new Bell Telephone Co. has posted a notice. It warns that anyone else's
electric speech machine infringes on their patents.
The ad for Columbia Bicycles still shows a penny-farthing bike with the huge front wheel,
even though this was the year when modern safety bikes began taking over the market. You
can buy asbestos insulation for your steam boiler. Or you can order Dr. Treskow's cure for
weak and nervous men. It'll restore perfect manhood. (Well, maybe advertising hasn't changed
so much after all.)
So here's a world of huge creative energy and forward motion. Nothing came out quite as we
expected, but still: What a wonderful snapshot of America, just halfway to where it is today.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Scientific American, Vol LII, No. 23, June 6, 1885.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.