Today, eerie drawings bind concept to reality. 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.
The word "blueprint" is a
little like the word "coach." The old name carries
into so many modern technologies that we forget
that the original is gone. Once we made working
drawings on a hard translucent paper called vellum.
Then we laid the vellum on light-sensitive paper
and ran it by a bright light. The exposed paper
turned deep blue. The lines stayed white.
Now here's the catch: The last time I made a real
blueprint from one of my drawings was 1949. So I've
been asking friends, "When was the last time you
saw a blueprint?" Most of them tell me, "The day
before yesterday." Most people know exactly what
blueprints are and think they're still in use.
If you really have seen one lately, it had to be in
an old archive. Blueprints died out during the
'50s. They were replaced by related processes like
Ozalid and blueline.
John Herschel, son of astronomer William Herschel,
invented blueprinting in 1842. He too was a great
astronomer. He was a mathematician, chemist, and
inventor as well. Herschel was the first Englishman
to take up photography. After Herschel,
blueprinting changed little for 120 years. Maybe,
as a child, you photographed leaves by laying them
on blueprint paper in the sun.
But by 1960 those ghostly negative images, white on
blue, gave way to more obvious pictures with dark
lines on a white field. Machinists no longer had to
invert images in their minds before they carved
them into wood and steel. Still, the people I talk
to cannot quite forget those ectoplasmic negative
A friend recently handed me a remarkable book of 26
designs along with their blueprints. Grand Central
Station and the Spirit of St. Louis. The Volkswagen
Beetle and Washington Cathedral.
Look at the plans for Hoover Dam. They reveal a
massiveness we cannot see in Arizona. The dam is as
thick at its base as it is high. In Arizona we see
the tips of its intake towers floating like water
lilies behind the dam's delicate lip. The feathery
mass of the white on blue plan is barely kin to the
porcelain appearance of the real thing.
So blueprint has become more than a word -- more
than an apt icon for a plan, or an intent, or a
hope for the future. Those eerie negative images
remind us that, when we invent, we see darkly -- as
through a glass.
The thing in the mind and the thing in the world
are curiously disjunct. But that's where genius
enters. Great designers create two realities at
once. Good design is hard just because it means
building a blueprint in the mind -- for an engine
that must one day live and act in the corporeal
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gray, C., and Boswell, J., Blueprints:
Twenty-Six Extraordinary Structures. New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Encyclopedia of Architecture: Design,
Engineering, and Construction (J.A. Wilkes,
editor-in-chief,). Vol. 2, New York: John Wiley and
Sons, 1988, pp. 246-250.
See also the Oxford English Dictionary
entries under "blueprint," "Ozalid," and "diazo."
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Library,
for her suggestions and help with this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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