Today, we hand-build more than just a harpsichord.
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 wife brought home a
documentary video about the restored Colonial
music-instrument shop in Williamsburg. I didn't
mean to watch it myself, but I paused when she
turned it on. And I couldn't leave it. The video
showed each step in the construction of a violin
and a small harpsichord.
That in itself could've been tedious, but I was
riveted by the realization that the artisans were
making absolutely no concessions whatsoever to
modern convenience. They did every step with period
apparatus. You can't appreciate what that means
until you actually see it through from start to
The workers used no power tools -- not for their
jig saws, drills or lathes. They did nothing to
violate the spirit of 17th and 18th-century
craftsmanship. At one point, a small hole -- about
1/32 of an inch -- had to be drilled in a
harpsichord jack. The man nipped the head off a
straight pin. Then he rolled the pin over a coarse
file. That process imprinted tiny grooves that
turned the pin into a drill bit. Finally he mounted
it in a small chuck driven manually by a
They formed the violin scroll, and the dove-tail
joints in the harpsichord case, with the virtuoso
use of hand chisels. They used a hundred tricks to
align wood grains -- to stain, glue, and polish
wood. The few nails they used were hand-forged.
Making a screw was too labor-intensive, so they
They shaped plectra for sounding the iron and brass
strings in the harpsichord before our eyes -- from
goose quills. They fashioned small springs from pig
bristles, and so on and on.
Finally, as we listened to a Baroque sonata on the
finished instruments, I reflected in astonishment
on what I'd seen. I'd seen absolute intimacy with
process. At each step those artisans knew how their
physical world worked and how to deal with it.
Today we wonder what became of an age that produced
Newton in England and ultimately gave us Jefferson
in Virginia. Those people lived in a world where
science and technology were converging, and where
every educated person was a generalist. It was also
a world where education touched the full range of
knowledge, and where manual skill was a common
denominator for everyone.
Today we partition and specialize our lives. We
allow the people who think about Tudor history,
business software, and automobile repair to live in
separate worlds. Our 18th-century forbears could
build a violin from scratch, read Greek and Hebrew,
and ultimately form a new government of and by
themselves. They were a people whose freedom welled
up from minds that still struggled to see the world
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2136.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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