Today, old scientific instruments tell about modern
engineering design. 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.
A listener rather
diffidently sent me a set of her son and his wife's
catalogs. She wasn't trying to sell me anything.
But, she said, I do talk about old books. Maybe
another face of yesteryear would be of equal
There, in the brown envelope, were four handsome
booklets. TESSERACT Early Scientific
Instruments, said the cover of each. As I read,
an older world of engineering design opened up to
Forceps, sundials, transits, ear trumpets -- all
marched out in their earliest forms. Here was a
late 19th-century surveyor's compass -- like one I
was still using in 1946. There was an early
20th-century hand-cranked pocket calculator.
Many medical items would hardly occur to you. A
19th-century leech applicator is a bent glass tube
with an opening in one end. You put a leech in it
and insert it in part of the body -- say the ear.
You aim him at the precise point you want bled.
Two 17th-century bullet extractors make more sense.
They're scissors-like gadgets for pulling musket
balls from wounds. A heavy musket ball went halfway
through a body, then lodged. Ball pullers came in
endless variety. One of these ghastly tools is
engraved with a dainty floral motif.
Here's their companion -- an amputation saw from
1750. It's really just a beautifully gilded
hacksaw. One instrument tells how far surgery went
without anesthetics. It's a 300-year-old trepanning
brace and bit -- like a carpenter might use. But
this one has gold trim, and it was designed to
invade the human skull.
So we look at pocket sun dials, kaleidoscopes,
microscopes, devices to measure the trembling of
hands, the intensity of breath. Here's a
14th-century Islamic quadrant.
Two ideas run through these fine, delicate
instruments. One is anticipation -- of computers,
modern telescopes, theodolites. But you also read
the theme of the failed experiment -- the idea
whose time was doomed never to come.
Yet the craftsmanship, machining, enameling, and
engraving are uniformly stunning. The running theme
is beauty. These were not black boxes. Their
function was exposed and glorified. You share the
sentient pleasure of the people who made these
objects of art -- these engines of the imagination.
They were made to last. Makers didn't see how
rapidly obsolescence was overtaking them. Now we
build to other criteria -- safety, affordability,
and the rate of obsolescence.
Maybe that's why these technological pearls, made
with the permanence of a Rembrandt, hold such
appeal for me -- in what has necessarily become a
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds