Today, just try to turn your back on the friendly
face of an old clock. 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.
I wear a digital watch, and
I wake to a digital alarm clock. Does that mean
circular clocks are dying out? Will I, one day,
give up my old wall clock with its hands and a
Digital clocks usually have a more precise readout.
It's easier for children to read them. Linear time
-- time as a sequence of rising numbers -- that's
pure simplicity. Of course it's simplicity the same
way a tree is simpler than a forest.
A circular dial paints a picture of earth's
rotation. It models our own experience of passing
time. It's a lovely analog of reality. But, in a
digital display, night never falls. Time simply
advances, without features, minute after minute.
It's an odd competition. And I become a
battleground where the practical simplicity and
precision of my digital watch competes with the
metaphorical imagery and visual grace of my clock.
So what do you think? Will your grandchildren grow
up never reading an analog clock? We've left many
other things behind this century -- Betamax, slide
rules, dirigibles, LPs, autogyros.
So what has survived and why? Try silverware. We
keep trying to improve knives, forks, and spoons.
The runcible spoon, half fork/half spoon, was a
cute idea. But where is it now, outside The Owl and
Pussycat poem? It couldn't compete with the perfect
balance and feel of the silverware we use. If we
bend a fork just a hair out of its graceful
alignment, it drives us nuts.
Radio didn't replace the quiet tactile newspaper.
TV didn't replace radio, and the video phone has
never caught on. We often don't want visual
distraction. If I read Dylan Thomas:
you don't want me to show you a picture
of a sunset. You'd rather dream your own.
This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun, ...
A clock face evokes its own abstract picture of
this day winding down. Those clockwise-moving hands
are a literal picture of the day winding on,
because clock faces were made to mimic sundials. In
the Northern hemisphere, a sundial shadow is an
hour-hand moving in that same rotation.
If you want to predict the death or survival of a
technology, you certainly ask if it's functional.
But that's never enough by itself. You have to look
beyond. You have to ask if it's a metaphor for
something more than function. You have to ask how
it lies against your skin and next to your soul.
Once a technology has touched us in that deep
visceral and emotional place, it'll find a way to
persist -- from one generation to the next.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds