Today, a new class of machines and new viewpoint.
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.
When James Watt was 19, he saddled up
and left Greenock, Scotland. He rode down to London
and apprenticed himself to a
mathematical-instrument maker. Now there's a
job description we no longer hear. To get an
impression of what it means, go out to your garage
and look that old wood
plane -- the one that belonged to your
grandfather. It's the gadget with carved wooden
handles, fine brass fittings, and more adjusting
knobs than you ever thought you needed.
That's no scientific instrument, of course. But in
Watt's time, a plane was a drab wooden block with a steel
blade wedged in place. Only as the idea of
precision instruments spread did the old wood plane
itself begin to look like one.
The other day I went out to watch surveyors
measuring the neighbor's yard. Nothing was the same
as in my surveying days -- the 1940s. The smooth,
gray, electronically-enhanced theodolite bore no
resemblance to the old transit I once used. The
countless knobs and verniers -- the shiny brass --
Mathematical-instrument makers were the people who
took the skills of medieval clockmakers into a much
wider world. Small wonder that one of their number
brought the steam engine to the point where it
dominated the nineteenth
For French historian Maurice Daumas,
mathematical-instrument-making began with the late
16th-century invention of the sector. That's
a device for measuring angles. Find the angle of
elevation of a distant point on the road you're
laying out. Then measure the distance, and
trigonometry tells how far the road rises.
It was during the sixteenth century that science
turned from deduction to observation. As it did, we
demanded new instruments to extend our vision. And
so they appeared: sextants, octants, astrolabes,
theodolites, lens-grinding lathes, telescopes,
microscopes, barometers, air pumps, thermometers,
clock-making machinery, balances, transits --
machines whose purpose was to teach new electrical
and mechanical principles.
Watt, of course, went in a different direction. He
brought an instrument-maker's perspective to the
great lumbering eighteenth-century steam engines.
Daumas believes that Watt's association with John
Wilkinson, creator of the large boring-mill, was
Wilkinson's new mill could bore a four-foot engine
cylinder within a sixteenth-of-an-inch accuracy.
Heavy machinery was about to be built with the same
loving accuracy as those old brass and steel
instruments. Today we make precision-machined cars
and airplanes. We've given small-scale precision
over to automatically machined parts and
electronics -- sealed away in plastic casings.
Those shiny old brass micro-manipulators and
vernier adjustors -- transits and fine watchwork --
breathed their last after WW-II. All that remains
of that in my house is an old wood plane. It is a
scant mirror of a forgotten epoch of really lovely
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds