Today, we visit a past that was this close to being
our own. 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.
We look at a wild, 8-story
building from the outside and wonder what mad
animus set it here, in the middle of Doylestown,
Pennsylvania. It looks like a French baroque
castle, with its vertical lines, gridded windows,
and steep roof. But it's all made from cast
reinforced concrete -- not stone. It's Henry
Mercer's Museum, opened in 1916 with a very special
It all began in 1897, when Mercer went to a
junkyard to find a pair of fireplace tongs. As he
rummaged through old wagons, spinning wheels, and
salt boxes, it came to him! These were technologies
that had been unaltered for millennia. Now -- in a
blink -- they'd been relegated to the scrap heap.
"There is," he said, "a greater difference between
our lives and the life of George Washington than
between his life and the life of William the
Conqueror." And that was only 98 years after
Washington's death. Mercer realized he was viewing
the remains of a civilization that was vanishing --
with dizzying speed -- before his very eyes.
Mercer was an honored and respected traditional
anthropologist in 1897. He was a museum curator and
a journal editor. But his soul had been touched by
that junkyard. He'd seen anthropology where
traditional anthropologists weren't able to see it.
For ten years he placed himself outside the
mainstream of the field while he built this museum.
It is, in fact, part junkyard and part cathedral.
The technologies of your great-grandparents are
piled deep in gallery after gallery around a
central bay -- all lit by windows, not electricity.
Small surprises lurk around every corner. The
labeling is minimal and idiosyncratic -- no
lectures or recorded guides. Author Frederick Allen
thinks it's like a church -- quiet, beautiful,
reverential, and poorly attended. Even the smell is
compelling. The linseed oil, used to preserve the
wood, gently perfumes the air.
Mercer's museum honors a past that he couldn't
allow to pass away without a decent memorial.
Mercer died the same year I was born. And he was
preserving the not-quite-dead technologies of the
Middle Ages. It's all happened that fast. You and I
have never known a world without airplanes,
automobiles, and electronic media. But we barely
missed living in a world with none of those things.
Mercer's museum, filled as it is with the perfected
technologies of hand tools, carriages, and clocks,
is a monument to the soaring human imagination just
as surely as the wonders that replaced them. In the
end, this strange museum tells the mercurial speed
and restlessness of our imagination, as well as its
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds