I've said many times before: 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 friend has been scolding
me about the introduction you just heard. He asks,
"What's this series about?" What do I mean by "the
machines that make our civilization run"? I talk
about biology and poetry right along with steam
engines and airplanes. Do I use the words "engine"
and "machine" too broadly?
The fact is, I've run awash in the fluidity of our
language. The words we speak constantly find new
meanings that blur the old. But the ghost of old
meaning lingers. Buy an air coach fare, and an old
echo rings in your mind. It is the clatter of
horses and the rush of cold night wind past your
That's why the title of this series, The
Engines of Our Ingenuity, can be confusing.
Those words have changed. So I get mail addressed
to "Engines of the Mind" and "Ingenue's Engines."
Actually, my title is a pun. Engine and ingenuity
both come from the same Latin word,
ingenium. It means innate mental
power. Engine is one more word that's changed on
us. It used to mean any product of our mind. We're
getting back to that meaning today. A search engine
is software that seeks out information. That's a
long way from the engine under the hood of your
Chaucer once said that our wisdom takes three
forms. They are "memorie, engin, and intellect." By
memorie and intellect he meant the same things we
do. But by engin, he meant creative right-brain
wit. He meant invention. So did Sir Walter Scott
when he told about "A man of quick ingine and deep
The word machine is like that. It means any device
that carries out a function -- like the machinery
The architect Le Corbusier called a dwelling a
"machine for living." Huxley did him one better. He
called King's College Chapel "the perfect
We get the word machine from Greek theatre.
Mechanical ropes and pulleys delivered the
deus ex machina. He was the rescuing
god who inserted a happy ending into a hopeless
story. Our machinations are the ingenious ways we
make things come out the way we want them to.
There's an odd message in all this. Our machines
are never far from ourselves. We are what we make.
The machine, after all, is born in the ultimate
engine. And that is our ingenuity.
So my friend is right. The words machine and engine
have narrowed down. They've grown small. Once those
words linked the mind that creates things to the
Our ingenuity is the real engine. The rest -- art
and technology, science and literature -- they are
shadows cast by greater machines -- by the
machinery of our minds.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we talk about the way inventive minds work.