Click here for audio of Episode 1400.
Today, a look back. 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.
Sometimes I find myself grasping to
remember the sights, smells, and texture of life before
WW-II. I have little sense of having undergone much
change, yet I know it'd be a terrible wash of cold water
if I were suddenly plopped back into that world.
Let's compress the scale of that idea a bit. In 1982 you
either typed letters and reports on a typewriter or, if
you were one of the more fortunate, handed them to a
secretary. Think of the magnitude of your dismay if you
had to go back to that world. Or remember the '50s, when
you had to make copies with carbon paper.
We've all been through the process of deciding that it
wouldn't be so nice after all to find ourselves back in
the Golden age of Athens or the Italian renaissance. But
the fact is it wouldn't be so nice to find ourselves back
in the roaring '20s or even the excitement of the
The greatest advances have been in public health. The
length and quality of human life are far greater today,
even in poor countries. One sensate recollection of the
1930s that I can build with great clarity is a visit to
the dentist's office. I was cavity-prone, yet I
experienced no pain-killer until after WW-II. Dentistry
was simple torture, and I still cringe when I think of
But most of our remote childhood takes on the soft edges
of reverie. That makes it hard to see the extent to which
technology is a force improving the quality of life.
Let's make a quick inventory of some true tastes and
smells of life in the '30s.
Alcoholism was rampant. All we had to do was to look down
our street to find friends whose lives had been
devastated by the stuff. We didn't understand its
effects. Alcohol was regarded as a universal medicine and
a calming agent. A child might be given heated Scotch and
honey as a cough remedy.
Doctors made house calls, but they couldn't fix anything.
No antibiotics! Vitamins hadn't yet reached the public
consciousness. Tuberculosis was largely incurable.
Infectious diseases like measles and chicken pox had to
run their course while your house was quarantined with a
yellow sign warning visitors not to enter.
Tires didn't last 10,000 miles. No interstate highways.
Any long trip meant a breakdown or two. And only the
well-to-do took automobile trips. Nobody traveled
in airplanes. Going overseas meant an ocean voyage.
When beggars came to your door, you were expected to put
them to work chopping wood or raking leaves and to give
them a sandwich. For hunger was abroad in the land. It
was a real sign of status for a high-school student to
get a job sacking groceries. College was only a rumored
place for most people.
I still look back at toboggans, streetcars, and radio
tubes with enormous nostalgia. For those things formed
me. But then I look around at the world I live in now,
and I can only say: Thank God for the machines that make
our civilization run!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.