Today, I meet the engine that drove 19th-century
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.
Today, two old threads of my
life finally wove together, and I learned something
about post-Industrial-Revolution technology.
The first thread was a line from a WW-II movie
where the hero quoted Goethe to the heroine:
"Linger a while, thou art so fair." I found the
line strangely compelling. I never forgot it.
The second thread arose when I lived in Lexington,
Kentucky, back in 1980. I'd just been offered my
job here in Houston. It was going to be a good job,
but I couldn't bear leaving Kentucky.
Then, one magical evening, my dog and I walked out
through the University farm behind our house. The
dog ran through the high grass. Fireflies were out.
Waves of firefly light rippled outward -- as far as
the eye could see. It was a night of such perfect
crystalline beauty as to melt your heart.
And in that moment, I knew I would accept the
Is that a crowning piece of illogic? Well, today I
found the full text of the Goethe quotation. It
explained at last what'd happened on that
surrealistically lovely night in Kentucky.
Faust uttered the line while he negotiated with the
Devil. You see, Faust didn't strike a bargain with
the Devil, he made a bet. Faust bet that he could
never be lured into settling down on any Earthly
pleasure -- that his spirit would remain restless.
The Devil agreed to the bet, and Faust spoke:
When I say to the Moment flying;Goethe was a Romantic poet, and this was
a primary Romantic sentiment. A driving restlessness
is the mainspring of the creative person. Faust hurls
his challenge at Satan: "When did the likes of you
ever understand a human soul in its supreme
'Linger a while -- thou art so fair!'
Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
And my final ruin I will bear!
Goethe spent 41 years, on and off, writing
Faust -- 1790 to 1831. During those
same years, Watt's engines marched out of England
and transformed the world. All the while the
Romantic poets told us we had the intellectual
power to shape nature. "I will not rest from mental
fight," cried William Blake.
So, when I faced overwhelming contentment that
night in Kentucky, I knew on some visceral level
that I had to turn my back on it. So, in 1817, four
American engineers who'd never seen a canal began
building the almost 400-mile Erie Canal. So, in
1825, Marc Brunel began an unheard-of tunnel under
the Thames River.
And here was the engine behind all that -- Romantic
discontent with anything but a world being rebuilt
over and over in the human heart -- Faust raging at
Satan that he would never say to any rare and
perfect moment, "Linger a while, thou art so fair."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds