Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 12:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let's talk about some words. 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.

The words science, technology, and engineering take such a kicking about! Who makes a spaceship go up -- a scientist, a technologist, or an engineer? Who takes the blame if it fails? Maybe we should look closer at the words before we try to answer.

The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. We apply the word science to ordered or systematic knowledge. A scientist identifies what's known about things and puts that knowledge into some kind of order.

Part of the word technology goes back to a nice Greek word, techni. Techni means art and skill -- what a painter, stonemason, millwright, or glassblower might do. But the other part of the word is its ending, ology, which means the study or the lore or even the science of something. Technology is the lore or the science of techni -- of making and doing.

Technology is separate from the actual act of glassblowing or machining. It's the knowledge of these things. Our language would be a lot clearer if we could reclaim the old Greek word techni for the actual act of making and doing.

The last of the three words -- engineering -- comes from the Latin word ingeniare, which means to devise. A lot of other English words are related to this word: ingenuity, which means inventiveness, and engine, which can be taken to mean any machine of our devising -- any "engine of our ingenuity." So an engineer is, first and foremost, a deviser of machines.

For about three hundred years science and techni have joined forces. The latter-day engineer is a technologist who's well schooled in science and who can make effective use of it when he tries to create the engines of his ingenuity.

Which of the three -- scientist, technologist, or engineer -- reaps the credit or blame for a spaceship? The answer, of course, is that the question is no good. The three functions of techni, science, and invention together make a spaceship. Of course, engineers combine these functions. One behaves more like a craftsman -- a user of techni -- while another behaves more like a scientist -- refining background information for designers. But a person earns the title "engineer" when the goal of his labors is the actual creative design process -- when he combines a knowledge of techni with science to achieve invention.

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

(Theme music)

For more on the etymology of the words with which we talk about science, engineering and technology, see Episode 718.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.