Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 777:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 777.

Today, we wonder why we fight so hard against new technologies. 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.

Nothing makes the problem of technical adaptation so patently clear as facing your own failure to adapt. I'll never forget lunch with colleagues at a technical conference in 1972. We talked about the new pocket calculators.

We wondered if we should let our engineering students use them. I was worried. "If we do," I said, "they'll never learn to use their slide rules!" Of course that was entirely true. None of my students today can use a slide rule. Nor would we even think of teaching them to use one.

In my defense, no 1972 pocket calculator did everything a slide rule could. But I should've seen change coming. By the late '70s, colleagues were writing books on how to do programmable computations with hand-held calculators. Before the ink was dry, we all had desktop computers. The programmable calculator had already come and gone.

So we struggle to make full use of our desktops. I still have friends who write material out in longhand, then transcribe it into their word processors. That's what I did for the first few months. Eventually I learned to sit with the keyboard on my lap and virtually think my words onto the screen.

Yesterday yielded a fine example of people catching up with a new technology. Three of us had written a paper about the electronic networks. We talked about the way information flows without the need of paper. One co-author announced the paper to her international computer discussion group. Readers in China and Belgium e-mailed orders. As requests flooded in, some came in the old media. Here was a postcard. One woman had her secretary place a long-distance phone call.

And I remember a former boss and his stenographer. He wrote his letters out in longhand. Then he called her in to dictate from his copy while she got it down in shorthand. She went off to transcribe her notes and type his letter.

When I start to laugh at that man, I have to remember my own defense of the slide rule. For engineers, slide-rules were once badges of honor and marks of recognition. I suppose that's what stenographers were to bosses. So I do not laugh. Instead, I recall what Robert Frost once wrote about change:

Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.
It simply took me a while to bow and accept the end of my lovely old slide rule.

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

(Theme music)

Myers, J.E., Wilson, T.C., and Lienhard, J.H., Surfing the Sea of Stories: Riding the Information Revolution. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 114, No. 10, October 1992, pp. 60-65.

The full text of the Frost Poem is:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended.
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither; The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question "Whither?"
Ah, when to the heart of a man
Was it ever less than a treason,
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season.

Robert Frost
I used this poem in another episode to make a related point, some years ago. See Episode No. 330.

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

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