Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 714:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 714.

Today, change catches up with us -- from within. 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.

It's a lovely evening in Berkeley, California. These were my streets when I studied here in the late '50s. The air's cool and refreshing. Delicate baroque strings play over the car radio.

Here's the apartment where my wife and I first lived. The paint's peeling, but it's still there. There's the old beer garden and the movie theater. The night we saw Marlon Brando's motorcycle movie here, forty Hell's Angels showed up in heavy metal and tattoos! It was scary.

The Campanile bell tower looks the same. But when I was here, a smart student couldn't face the humiliation of a B grade. He climbed the tower and jumped. You don't notice it from the ground, but the gallery's glassed in now.

The machinery in my old lab -- those engines and process towers -- they also have the same outward texture. You have to lift the lid to see change. Inside are electronics and computer links no one could've imagined in the '50s.

The real changes are interior ones. The superficial view would disappoint a visitor from yesterday.

And I am a visitor from yesterday. My nostalgia begins to cave in among the shady eucalyptus trees. This scene speaks of quiet hours reading, reflecting, and undergoing formative change.

I worked very hard here. I learned a lot. But the enormous changes we face today were only straws in the wind back then. The '50s pale beside the revolution exploding around us.

Our ordinary lives in Houston or Minneapolis or Oklahoma City bubble with ferment and change. We're in the middle of a quiet -- but huge -- revolution.

Biologists are beginning to see that cooperation is as important as Darwinian competition. Think how life as we know it will turn upside down as we put that idea to work! Information experts say the electronic media are redefining human relations. Computers are mirroring, reinforcing, and ultimately changing the texture of human thought.

Past technologies all left larger tracks in the world outside. Things like the plow and the engine expanded the reach of our bodies into the world. This time technological change mirrors our minds. This time, we ourselves are being transformed -- the way we work, the way we know each other.

This is a lovely bucolic scene. But real youth -- real change -- has caught up with me late in life. You and I live in days that 25th-century historians will wish they could've known. They will envy us for the mutations we underwent -- back in the 1990s.

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

(Theme music)

Lienhard, J. H., Thermodynamic and Macroscopic Aspects of Boiling. Submitted to the Reactor Safety Branch, Division of Reactor Development, Atomic Energy Commission, Series No. 163, Issue 3, July 1961. Doctoral dissertation, Mechanical Engineering Department, University of California, Berkeley, 1961.

Photo by Andrew Lienhard

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