Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1133:
LUCILLE TREGANOWAN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1133.

Today, let's meet an unexpected auto mechanic. 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.

Here's an arresting photo in the New York Times. It shows an attractive 66-year-old woman in a business suit. Her right hand holds a socket wrench and rests on an automotive transmission. You look closely and realize that she's standing under a car, up on a rack at a garage. Her name is Lucille Treganowan.

Writer Carol Lawson has been interviewing Treganowan -- following her through her day. Treganowan starts her car. As it begins moving away from the curb, she says quietly, It's a miracle. And that remark is what we need to talk about today.

They arrive at one of the Transmissions by Lucille shops in Pittsburgh. Lucille Treganowan is an ace mechanic who specializes in transmission repair. Her story began with a divorce in 1960. She needed to support her three children so she found clerical work in an auto repair shop. At first, she found herself answering all the customers' questions with the same sentence: I don't know.

Treganowan knew nothing about cars. She'd never even been terribly interested in cars. But her father had been a plumber and he'd never let her get the idea there was anything mystical about the way things worked. One key phrase in Treganowan's story is [My father] treated me just like my two brothers.

So she decided to quit being ignorant. She studied how cars worked. By 1973 she knew enough that she was ready to go into business for herself. It's been hard for women to break into male preserves when they're a minority. But auto mechanics is an undiluted male world. Treganowan wasn't a minority. She was what mathematicians like to call an isolated singularity.

She was so improbable that the media gave her free advertising in the form of feature articles. She was soon a public figure -- first teaching one of those Powder Puff Mechanics courses, then hosting her own TV show: Lucille's Car Care Clinic.

But at the root of her success was something more important than ambition or even dedication. It was passionate mental engagement. Where other automobile problems can be obvious, automatic transmissions are mysterious. What goes wrong is hidden inside. Diagnosis means solving a mystery. She says something that is at once innocent and powerful about that process. She says,

To fix something and then drive down the street and have it shift perfectly -- boom, boom, boom -- makes me think, Wow!

And we're back to that It's a miracle remark. That's where Treganowan's strength lies. She looks at a machine and sees the miracle. In the end, her story isn't a story about gender after all. It's about understanding technology. For her success has come from savoring that love of mind and function -- which we build into all our best machines.

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

(Theme music)


Lawson, C., Enjoying Life's Miraculous Transmissions. The New York Times, Thursday, June 6, 1996, p. B3.

For more on Lucille Treganowan and a picture, see the following websites:

http://www.asashop.org/autoinc/jan97/shoprof.htm http://www.theautochannel.com/news/press/date/19980817/press015934.html


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