Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1021:
ROBINSON CRUSOE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1021.

Today, thoughts about the isolated hero of Western technology. 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.

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Only a third of the book is about his survival on a remote island. But that part is now a metaphor for the way we save ourselves with technology.

Fourteen years earlier, a real person, Alexander Selkirk, was left by his shipmates on a real island -- off the coast of Chile. Selkirk had fled his contentious Scottish family in 1702 and gone to sea in a British privateer. Its business? Harassing Spanish outposts in the Pacific. Conditions on the ship were terrible, and Selkirk carried trouble with him.

One day, in a rage, he told his shipmates to put him ashore. So they did -- on a deserted island. As the longboat pulled away, he screamed for them to take him back. They would not. And there he stayed 'til a British ship found him four years later.

A London magazine published the story in 1713, and Defoe read it. Meanwhile, Selkirk went back to his erratic life -- marrying women here and there -- going to sea now and then. He died in 1721, two years after Defoe published Robinson Crusoe.

Of course, Defoe changed his hero. He modeled Crusoe on himself -- made him part of the conservative middle class. He used Crusoe to explore his own ideas about imperialism. Crusoe becomes the benevolent colonizer -- teaching the savage, Friday, to be what he himself is. There was no Friday in Selkirk's story.

Selkirk was pretty savage before he was deserted, and he brought little technology to his imprisonment. The sailors who found him said he was almost naked -- that he had to relearn human speech. Oddly enough, Defoe undercut his own survival thesis in another book. He wrote, "Necessity makes an honest man a knave."

In 1750, the Spanish built a small fort on Selkirk's island. Later, they made the island into a prison. Neither lasted long. In 1966, the Chilean government changed the name of the island to Robinson Crusoe. They hoped to pick up tourist trade. Today the population is around 600 -- mostly fisherfolk who live in near isolation. There are three small hotels -- not heavily used.

The theme of a lone technological man carving civilization from the primeval forest recurs down through our technical/scientific world -- from Crusoe all the way to Gilligan's Island!

Mark Twain put that old wine in a new skin when he wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But Twain was smarter. His Yankee hero eventually made a mess of things.

So: what about the lone technological hero? Well, it didn't work for Selkirk, and I doubt it'd work for anyone. In the end, technology is culture -- something we do together. Technology does define our survival, but only in the framework of community.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


See two articles in Conde Nast Travel, May 1990: Quennell, P., The Man who was Robinson Crusoe, pp. 140-141, 182. Payne, B, ... and his Island, pp. 141, 182-187.



Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

From The life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1862


Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

From The life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1862



Image courtesy of the Documents Department, UH Library

Selkirk's island was one of those in the San Juan Archipelago -- too tiny to show on the left-hand side of this map



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