Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1273:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1273.

Today, an old book takes stock of science and art in 1852. 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.

I've been reading the third yearly Annual of Scientific Discovery, published in 1852. It gives a neat snapshot of thinking just before a wholly new modern science rose up in the late 19th century. Darwin's Origin of Species would come out seven years later. In the next decade, Maxwell and Boltzmann would begin writing a new physics based on molecular action. Pasteur had yet to lead the way toward understanding bacteria.

In practical, hands-on, 19th-century America, science meant both less and more than it does today. The book begins with an account of London's Great Industrial Exhibition -- better known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. That famous glass and steel building consciously linked industry with art.

So what was catching our attention 150 years ago? Certainly the new telegraph lines were. A cable had just connected England and France. One author wondered how soon a telegraph message would pass from England to America. Actually, that message would be sent only six years later. We see a big interest in telescopes and astronomy and in the new iron steamships. Foucault had just demonstrated the Foucault pendulum in Paris, and the public loved it.

The book indexes only one item under the word medicine -- a new means for preparing medicinal powders. Anthropology is a great fascination, but it's in a strange state: The book reports a new translation of the Dakotah Indian language, but it also quotes a French scientist talking about a race of men with tails in South America. A noted English naturalist has found that human life on earth must reach back as far as 20,000 years. An American finds what appears to be a 2000-year-old skull in Ohio, and he's surprised that the cranial cavity suggests a brain just like ours.

A few surprises, though: a patent for an electric light, 30 years before Edison's. An English scientist says the consumption of tobacco puts 340 million pounds of carbonic acid gas into the atmosphere each year. He calls it a serious air-pollution threat.

For the most part this book sees only through a glass darkly. Its writers hardly had a clue about forces poised to reshape us. Atomic physics was just taking shape. So were bacteriology, modern medicine, mass production, and industrial chemistry. People like Darwin and Mendel were about to shape a wholly new vision of human life on earth, but that vision is absent here.

I believe that the change we faced in 1852 was almost as dramatic as the change we face today. But, I doubt we're any better at understanding what's going on about us. I've often talked about how unpredictable the future is. Now this strange old book reminds us how terribly hard it is even to read the present -- with any accuracy.

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

(Theme music)

Annual of Scientific Discovery, or Year-Book of Facts in Science and Art for 1852 (David A. Wells, ed.). Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1852.

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

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