Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 454:
ARCANA: SCIENCE AND ART

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 454.

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 anyone realizes.

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 down.)

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 modern civilization.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Arcana of Science and Art or An Annual Register of Useful Inventions and Improvements. Fifth Year. London: John Limbird, 143 Strand, 1832. (Special Collections, Library, University of Houston.)

I'm grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, University of Houston, for calling my attention to the Arcana, and for making a copy available to me.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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