Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 232:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 232.

Today, we meet the mother of invention, and she's not the lady we expected. 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.

Simple pan balances go back to antiquity. Yet they're the basis for modern scales that make the most exacting measurements. My colleague James Casey tells me a remarkable thing about this important practical device. He tells me that its inventors didn't care a fig about weights and measures. They were trying to express the concept of balance, which is really quite subtle.

Blind-folded Lady Justice holds the law in one hand and the scales of judgment in the other. She shows us the scales -- the balance -- in quite abstract terms. Good and evil weigh against each other, not in kilograms or ounces, but in the common wisdom of society.

That theme is found in the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, where souls are weighed against a feather. A soul strikes its balance in life, and that balance is felt on the scales of judgment. In other societies, leaders weigh their bodies against the tribute of their people.

It's a mistake to look at these transactions as weighing and measuring. The concept of balance reaches far beyond that. The scale originated as an expression of that concept. It was created in the laboratory of ritual observance. It found no role as an instrument of commerce and science until much later in human history.

The same thing is true of many older technologies. Long before power-generating windmills arose in the 11th century, Buddhist monks used sails to spin their prayer wheels. It's hard for us to understand why the wind was used to drive prayer wheels long before it was used to grind grain. Then we learn that ancients in every land saw the wind as the Breath of God and as a manifestation of the human soul. In that context we can better see why it was that ritual gave birth to the windmill.

There's no end to examples like this. The great structures of the ancient world weren't built to satisfy functional ends. No one ever lived in the colossal Egyptian burial constructions. They were born of ritual, and so too were the great Gothic cathedrals of the 13th century.

We begin to understand technology when we realize that it flows from something much more abstract than a wish to fulfill practical needs. The people who've actually created the great material artifacts of our world have been propelled by far deeper forces. They've been driven by the need to express a primal understanding that quite outreaches objective explanation.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Seidenberg, A., and J. Casey, The Ritual Origin of the Balance. Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Vol. 23, 1980, pp. 179 226.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 2026.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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