Today, a thousand stories yield some unexpected
good news. 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.
"Great nations," wrote
John Ruskin, "write their
autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of
their deeds, the book of their words, and the book
of their art. Not one of these books can be read
unless we read the other two, but of the three the
only trustworthy one is the [book of their art.]"
Seven years ago I naively began this series. Since
then I've read the book of our art, of the things
we make. I've read it long and carefully. I set out
to tell 65 stories -- enough to run three months.
The idea of reaching a thousand hardly crossed my
mind. Nor could I have understood, back then, the
central message that would gel from this long
process of story-telling.
But gel it has. You see, the book of our art
starkly contradicts what we write in the books of
our deeds and words! Ask most people how we're
doing and, like the media around them, they'll
bring up crime and war -- the decline of courtesy
and good will.
When a Massachusetts insurance company recently
surveyed American attitudes, most people were quick
to say that the underpinnings of society are
collapsing. Yet those same people were happy with
their neighborhoods, their schools, and their
Politicians tell us we're living in some latter-day
Sodom from which only they can save us. The media
join in with all the well-documented horrors of
20th-century America: deceit, rape, murder. The
books of our words and deeds make grim reading
indeed, but it is misleading reading. Take the
number of murders per capita, for example: it's
just the same as it was when I was a baby. Evil
remains but it is not getting worse. We do have a
moral center of gravity, and we do keep evil in
So, for a change, read the book of our art and of
the things we make. That truest autobiography tells
an overwhelmingly positive story. The very word
technology means the lore, or the sharing, of
technique. Technology is our essential act of
sharing -- of generosity. It defines us as a
species. I meet that generosity of spirit
everywhere I'm willing to see it. So do you. Every
act of rudeness is balanced by a hundred quiet acts
By that same token, we overlook the goodness of
intent behind all the invisible technology that
serves us. We've distorted the record by using the
competitive lives of a few famous inventors, or a
few machines of war, to tell the history of
technology. Look closer, and those few pale against
the instinct for creative sharing that's shaped our
Seven years of story-telling have bent me to that
lesson. A resonance forms between teller and
listeners. Your generosity of spirit echoes in this
series as you too reveal that face of creative
kindness. For seven years you and I have read the
book of our art together, and I am left with a fine
hope for our future.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Donn, J., Americans polled believe 'I'm OK, but
you're not.' Houston Chronicle, Monday,
Nov. 21, 1994, p. 5A.
Murder rate little changed in six decades.
Houston Chronicle, Thursday, Feb. 2,
1995, p. 8A.
See also Episodes 560 and
861 for more on this
theme. I am grateful to N. Shamsundar, UH College
of Engineering, for providing the Donn article and
to Herman Detering, Detering Book Gallery, for
providing the Chronicle article as
well as critical commentary on the idea of the
Photo by Grady Carter, Courtesy of
Click on the thumbnail above for
a full-size image.
The Engines of Our
Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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