Today, we break ground. 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.
This fall of 2002, I walk back from lunch along
the south side of our library, as I always have. But in the last few
days, a new sight greets me. A large Komatsu PC300LC
excavator has appeared, and it's tearing into the lawn behind a wire
The ground is finally being broken for the new wing of our library,
after years of working to make it happen. We're still a few million
dollars short on this terribly important project, but more people who
care about this University will rise to that challenge.
For now, my mind is on that excavator. It's not large, as excavators
go -- less than forty tons. Komatsu makes one that's 750 tons, with
buckets that can lift the weight of two PC300 excavators. But this PC300
is dramatic enough. It can lift a load of dirt as heavy as a large
The arm that carries the bucket is a lot like your arm, with all its
articulation. The shoulder is next to the cab. The elbow is located just
beyond half the arm's length. At the end, the bucket attaches like a
hand. It can be extended some thirty feet.
And it's as expressive in its motion as a human arm. The operator is
an artist. He parks beside the section he's shaping and molds it just
as a sculptor would. We really are watching a human arm in motion.
The bucket cuts out soil down to a certain level, carries it over to
a pile, and shakes it off, as you might shake garden soil off your hand
when you're planting bulbs. The operator uses a delicate backhand motion
to smooth the section he's hollowed out. He uses the teeth on his bucket
like human fingernails, flicking away clods of dirt.
The excavator arm really is an amplification of the operator's own
movements. He's not some sort of specialized truck driver, but a bionic
man. His thoughts translate into the machine's motion. Reality seems to
take a strange turn to the left as I watch.
A vastly expanded library will rise here. Books and students will
fill it and energize it. The works of Socrates and Kant, Darwin and
Schrödinger, O'Neill and Albee will mold minds on this spot. Computers
will connect ideas. The quiet reaches of the new building will invite
minds to stretch and reach. This place where we share our ownership of
books and ideas will make books and ideas far more than they could ever
be in isolation.
But now I watch that same delicacy of cooperation, expressed in the
well-made machine from which the building begins. I watch balance and
motion, design and ergonometry, theoretical mechanics and hand-eye
Not from nothing does any great building spring. One day, when we all
heave a sigh of relief and break our champagne bottle upon the finished
building (or whatever it is one does), my mind will go back to that
great yellow android providing the first, and lasting, metaphor for what
we embark upon here.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're
interested in the way inventive minds work.
For more information about the Komatsu PC300LC see the Komatsu web site:
For more information about the new wing of the library, see:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.