Today, we wonder how to face change. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A new policy came down one
day in the 1970s, at another university. From now
on, it said, all our computing would be
centralized. We couldn't have our own computers.
The policy was firm; and it was a grievous
misreading of the future. Few people saw the error.
Today, of course, big central computers are
specialized elephants. Personal computers have
taken over most of our computing. Yet, even today,
we struggle to see what the computer really is, and
how it should serve us.
Experts concede that the PC actually hurt office
productivity at first. Personal computers need
personal expertise. We spent too much time misusing
them. PC misuse has caused both errors and chaos.
PCs have been around since 1981 and we have yet to
figure out the best uses for them.
We played this same drama, the same way, a hundred
years ago. The electric motor eventually had a huge
impact. But we were equally slow to catch on to
what it meant -- how to use it.
Before the electric motor, in the 1880s, factories
were big cubical buildings. That way, one large
central steam engine could drive everything. A
spider web of belts from the single engine to drove
shafts on every floor. It was like the spider web
of terminals that later ran out from a central
computer. We shaped factory buildings so the belts
wouldn't get too long.
First, we replaced the steam engine with one big
electric motor. We didn't see how much flexibility
we'd gain when each machine had its own motor. For
a whole generation we tried to fit new motors into
old factories. It was 1920 before we let motors
reshape factories into long low-lying buildings.
The first electric motors actually hurt
productivity as much as they helped it.
Now it's easy enough to be smart about the electric
motor. People in control of their own PCs can laugh
when the rest of us dial our own phones and print
out letters before we send them.
But how many of us can see the truck coming? What
new engines of our ingenuity, already here, will
only reveal them selves fully in our
We find a clue to the riddle of change when we
learn who has shaped our lives to the computer.
It's been graduate students and low level
employees. People with few vested interests,
working in the trenches, can ignore institutional
planning and the common wisdom. It is always such
people who find the grain of the wood. Adapting to
change means finding that same ability to let go of
old ways and vested interest -- within ourselves.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds