Today, let's read an old book about a new world.
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.
It's 1832. Our 20th century
world is just a premonition in people's minds. The
forty years of upheaval that began with the
American Revolution finally ended when Napoleon
lost at Waterloo. Now America and England are
turning themselves into industrial nations. England
is far ahead, but we're closing the gap faster than
In 1832, a small yearbook came out in London. It
was called, Arcana of Science and Art. The
Frontpiece is the new London Bridge. The bridge was
built the year before and it's there today. We read
about a new bimetallic strip thermostat, like the
one in your house. Here's a phosphorescant arrow
you can shoot from a gun to signal help. It's the
ancestor of the flare gun.
The book says a lot about America. It praises us
for adopting a decimal money system -- no more
pounds, shillings, and pence. England only made
that reform twenty years ago.
It also speaks well of the silks we'd begun making.
But it treats most of our products as the work of
noble savages. They like our "elegance of forms"
and "chasteness of ornaments." But we do poorly
with anything complicated. Our goods, they say,
... are most popular, and are held to be in best
taste, which are the plainest and neatest.
The book talks about science. In France,
Poisson has written the theory for surface tension.
The Scandanadians have discovered a new metal.
They've named it vanadium after the Norse Deity,
Vanadis. The Cajun American, John James Audubon, gets rave
reviews for a new book on
birds. A rambling essay on domesticating cats
says they won't look you in the eye. (That's
poppycock, of course. Any of my cats can stare me
At the back is a list of new books. Besides
Audubon's, two more catch my eye. Babbage
has published the first table of logarithms
produced by a calculator. And Mary Somerville has done an
expanded translation of Laplace's treatise on
celestial mechanics. The English have to play
catchup with French science.
So this odd little English book fills of a gap in
history. It tells of a time out of war. The great
political and intellectual revolutions had ended.
The next twenty years would bring new change and
testing. By the 1850s, the twin forces of Victorian
physics and American Industrial greatness would
emerge fully formed. Those forces would shape
But in 1832 we were still laying out our tools. In
the words of William Blake, just recently died, we
were arming for mental fight. This book takes us
into the minds that were about to change the known
world beyond all recognition.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds