Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2852: 25th ANNIVERSARY OF ENGINES

by John H. Lienhard

Today The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them.

This program first aired January 4th, 1988. So this day in 2013 is our 25th Anniversary. Back in the summer of '87 I proposed doing a few radio spots; and our station manager said Okay. But radio is relentless; it demands a steady flow of material. It could never be the casual process I thought I'd started. And yet, once begun, it laid its hand on me.

Then, something else: None of us realized what it meant to ride the crest of a digital information revolution. We've gone from editing audio tape with a razor and scotch tape, to editing audio on-screen -- the same way we edit in a word processor. At first we gave no thought to a lasting record of the show. No web version, no end-notes, no record of source material.

As soon as we had those things, we found we needed Internet audio. Then podcasting, classroom support, Spanish language episodes, the list goes on. Well, you know how that's worked. The electronic media have driven astonishing changes in all our lives.

And not just technology shifted under our feet. So did language. My 1930 speech patterns have spent 80 years growing obsolete. The relentless evolution of language is a pernicious problem in radio. What changes should we accept? What should we oppose? And I do realize that I display more age than good taste when I'm offended by loan used as verb, or by less replacing fewer.

Only the program's overarching purpose has stayed the same. We're here to celebrate inventing, making, doing. But our listeners have changed. The Internet has left the public better informed -- more general knowledge, more points of reference. Despite all our worry about American education, we can now assume more, rather than less, of our audience.

Another thing changed in 2001: We began adding other voices. Now a fine corps of contributors brings new life to the program and new life to our purpose. Some of us are engineers. Some, from the humanities, are people who know how technology serves as a basic cultural building block. Now I can take as much delight in listening as in talking. By the way, none of us does this for pay. Nor do any of us read words written by someone else. The engine behind what you hear is always the very personal expression of the speaker -- a real person drawn in by an aspect of human ingenuity in motion.

Well, the other engine behind it all is a superb, ever-curious audience. All radio is a tacit contract between broadcasters and listeners. I began discovering, from Day-One, how that subtle but iron-clad contract works.

Making a radio program hardly differs from designing and manufacturing a product. Users are the final arbiters of any design. And you, good listener, have been the person who has finally determined this series' form and shape. For that you have our thanks.

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

(Theme music)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity first aired locally on Jan. 4, 1988. It went out for national distribution on March 1, 1988.

I proposed the idea to KUHF Station Manager, John Proffitt in August, 1987. At the time, I'd hoped it could air weekly, but Proffitt said that would be unpopular with program directors - it had to be a week-daily show. I grudgingly agreed and set out to record 65 episodes during that Fall -- enough for three months or 13 weeks. I managed to complete 195 episodes by the end of 1988, after which we could begin mixing reruns in with new material.

The first time we used an essayist other than myself was early in 2001. Actor Megan Cole did Episode 1660. After that other voices came on board. Each of these have been carefully vetted and instructed in the complexities of radio writing/speaking. At this point the program is theirs more than mine. As of Jan. 4, 2013, Dr. Andy Boyd leads this group with 238 episodes.

The program went on the Internet in 1997. I did the Web markup work on top of writing the show for many years. Now KUHF-FM does much of such management of the program. Valerie Lawhorn now does the Internet version (better than before). And Paul Pendergraft has taken over general management of the show itself -- a task that has grown enormously in complexity. Image below is clip art.

This episode was first aired on January 4, 2013

A Long Jounrey A long and exotic journey


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.