Today let's talk about ceremony and technology. 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 grandmother to tell me
that if I burned my finger, I should dip it in a
cup of tea. She knew that, long before doctors knew
anything about the healing power of the tannic acid
in tea. Now my grandmother was a fine intelligent
woman, but she didn't know organic chemistry.
The art of Japanese Samurai sword making is like
that. It reached an astonishing level of perfection
as early as 800 AD -- 1200 years ago. A Samurai
sword is a wonderfully delicate and complex piece
of engineering. The steel of the blade is heated
and folded and beaten -- over and over again --
until the blade's formed by 33,000 layers,
forge-welded to one another. Each layer is a
hundred thousandth of an inch thick. All this is
done to extremely accurate standards of heat
treatment. The result's an obsidian-hard blade with
These blades represent a perfection of production
standards that modern quality control hasn't
matched. Yet the Japanese craftsmen who made them
didn't know anything about temperature measurement
or the carbon-content of steel. How do you suppose
they repeated such perfection?
The answer's one we'd be well advised to remember.
Sword making was swathed in ceremony and ritual. It
was consistent because the ceremony was precise and
unvaried. The ceremony was beautiful -- in action,
dress, and color. Heat treating temperatures were
controlled by holding the blade to the color of the
morning sun. The exact hue was transmitted from
master to apprentice down through centuries.
Sword-making was a part of Japanese art; and it was
subsumed into Japanese culture.
That sort of thing wasn't unique to the Japanese.
It was true of 18th-century violin-making and
12th-century cathedral building. Ritual did what
was later done with weights and measures.
Our intelligence, after all, runs deeper than a
mere ability to read gages. Our great technologies
arise out of a full range of experience. They come
from creativity that's triggered by more than
tables of technical data. Good technology isn't
independent of culture. The best doctor knows
organic chemistry and his grandmother's folklore.
The best metallurgist knows about iron-carbon phase
diagrams and medieval Japanese craftsmanship.
The best engineers know mathematics, physics, and
thermodynamics. But they also know the world they
live in. The best engineers have a deep-seated
knowledge of the people they serve.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The ideas about ceremony and technology are developed
nicely by Bronowski, J., The Ascent of Man.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973, 1973,
Chapter 4, The Hidden Structure. This is also
available on videotape and film.
For more on Japanese swords see, Sato, K., The
Japanese Sword (tr. by Joe Earl). Tokyo,
Kodansha International Ltd. and Shibundo, 1983.
This episode has been revised as Episode 1384.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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