Today, I ask if things have really changed in my
lifetime. 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 pass our days adapting to
one new technology after another. No one seems to
alter life radically. When the word processor
entered my life, it was blessed relief. Yet I would
not say that the earth moved on that day.
Last night I put myself to sleep by running a
mental inventory of such change. It was a shock. My
first memories are from the depression years of the
mid-thirties. I lived in a middle-class home with
fairly modern parents.
It was a large 13-room house. We heated it with a
coal furnace. Shoveling coal in, and taking
clinkers out, were daily chores. There was no
domestic air conditioning. We had one bathroom
upstairs. A second commode in the basement was an
We had an icebox -- not a refrigerator. Every few
days a horse-drawn wagon, filled with ice and
straw, came by. A man with a rubber shoulder guard
grabbed a 50-pound block of ice with tongs, slung
it on his back, and carried it to the icebox. We'd
steal shards of ice to lick while he was gone.
Now and then a man with a handcart came down the
street sharpening knives and scissors. We forget
that kind of amenity. We forget the deliveries of
milk, groceries, and medicine. Doctors made house
calls; yet the dentist, who began drilling my teeth
when I was six, never used any pain killer.
We looked to the sky more then than now. It was
full of interesting things -- DC-3s, biplanes,
blimps, dirigibles, and skywriting. Skywriting was
difficult. The letters were hard to position and
quickly windblown. Once in a while some skywriter,
drunk and angry, would pen his four-letter curse in
Our car had an automatic starter. Some neighbors
still had to crank theirs. We traveled a great deal
on foot and on the electric trolley. My mother
never did learn to drive. We got our first bikes
when we were ten. They had balloon tires and no
gear shift. My father did his own photo finishing
in the basement. During prohibition, up to 1933, he
also made gin down there.
We had one radio in the house. We gathered around
it for programs. The notion of individual radios
was unheard of. We spent as much time around the
piano. It was expected that you'd make your own
music at social gatherings.
That life had its own texture -- a good texture in
many ways. But when I cut away the haze of
childhood, I see it's not a life I'd want back. I
realize the enormity of change. And I see that
change itself is the shared element between life
then and life now.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds