Today, we ask how America came of age. 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.
We celebrated our centennial
in 1876. In just a century we'd turned from
England's outback into a great industrial leader.
We threw a great party that year -- the
Philadelphia Exposition. It was by far the largest
world's fair up 'til then.
Now I've come across a magazine that plays
counterpoint to the Philadelphia Fair. It's the
1876 volume of a magazine called The
Manufacturer and Builder. It's a kind of
Popular Mechanics, Popular
Science, and Scientific
American, all rolled into one.
It says a lot about heavy machine tools, dynamos,
turbines -- the great engines of material progress.
But where did those engines come from? They were
fed by mathematics and practical science. This
now-forgotten journal, like Mark Twain's
Connecticut Yankee, is packed with
random scientific knowledge.
Some of that knowledge is profoundly on target.
Much of it is not. One item talks about an
unsuccessful attempt to make artificial butter. The
product, called oleo-margarine, came out streaked
and speckled, and it soon turned rancid.
Another speculative item tells about experiments
with a new kind of talking telegraph, called a
telephone. And that was two years before Bell's
famous patent. They end with the words, "We are
perhaps only on the threshold of a mighty
revolution ... "
They tell of a 29-year-old inventor in Menlo Park,
New Jersey, named Thomas Edison. Edison thinks he's
found a new form of electricity. The editor thinks
he's mistaken. But then, the editor is nothing if
not contentious. He writes editorials correcting
wrong answers to readers' questions given by the
editor of Scientific American -- his
Yet it's here I see the strength of 19th-century
America more clearly than ever before. For reader
questions are the heart of this strange
multi-dimensional magazine. There are pages of
questions. Many are just left for readers to
answer. The magazine is many things, but at its
heart it is a great question bank.
Is Darwin the sole inventor of his absurd new
theory?We built America on our confidence in
the face of questions -- by being unafraid to face
our ignorance and beat it down.
Is the danger of trichinosis in pork a real
How elementary are the chemical elements?
What ore do you extract tellurium from, and
How does water get into the working barrel of a
So I read on. One item sings praises of the French
metric system. Another tells about a grand
engineering scheme -- a plan to turn the Sahara
Desert into a great inland salt sea and to make
Timbuctoo into a seaport. But then, why not! That's
the kind grand, question-driven thinking that drove
us just over a century ago. That's what made us
what we are.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds