Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1000:
REFLECTION ON 1000

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1000.

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 friends.

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 check.

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 of kindness.

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 technological civilization.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 episode.



Photo by Grady Carter, Courtesy of KUHF-FM Radio

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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