Today, the past fades away. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I've been thinking over the
opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe's poem,
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered,
weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten
It's that idea of forgotten lore. We've all
mourned the day Christian extremists destroyed the
famous Alexandria Library in AD 391. Yet that
Library was some six centuries old by then.
Accidents and vandalism had long since chipped away
at it. The lore of the past -- oral, written,
archaeological -- always diffuses with time. The
historian's task is to reconstruct the past from
increasingly skimpy information.
And that's not entirely bad. For the past
can chain us down. The great mathematician
Albert North Whitehead once said,
A science that hesitates to forget its
founders is lost.
That surprising remark makes some sense when we
consider how science requires us constantly to
sever the ties of old ideas.
Yet Whitehead's advice, followed precisely, can
only lead to reinventing old wheels over and over.
Last week a colleague who'd been pondering the
quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore in our
library came up with a 1938 edition of Kermode's
book on the Mechanics of Flight. This old
book still used canvas and wood bi-planes to
display the forces acting on airplanes. So I asked
myself what we'd gain and what we'd lose if this
book were forgotten.
Kermode's illustrations shape a powerful intuitive
lore of the precarious balance of forces that make
flight. Today, that understanding is fading fast:
the difference between angle of incidence and angle
of attack; why low-winged airplanes are more stable
in a sideslip than high-winged pontoon planes;
subtle differences among airfoils. Kermode explains
it all and punctuates it with poetry -- sweet and
awkward attempts to articulate the beauty of
And the air is crisp, and the wind is
And the clouds are lit with a silvery sheen,
Much of Kermode's lore has to die and be replaced.
But when it does, we lose more than the lore. We
lose his crystalline understanding of flight. He
explains lift, drag, thrust, gravity, propellers
and ailerons with graphs, pictures, and very little
math. Today we write the math into computers and
the physics no longer resides in our bodies. Of
course we can forget the lore. But we're in trouble
when we forget the viewpoint that created the lore.
That corporeal understanding drove Kermode to
poetry, and it drove the pioneers of flight to
invention. We no longer need to know a
rigger from a fitter. But we're in
trouble when we no longer have a clear physical
sense of the airplane in flight.
We've reached the point of forgetting lore so
rapidly that we also lose what once
surrounded it. And not just with airplanes!
We let too much of technology slip into
abstraction. We forget the physical poetry that
necessarily goes with all we make.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
To see the Whitehead quote in another context, see
Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1962, 1970, pp. 138-139.
Kermode, A.C., An Introduction to Aeronautical
Engineering. London: Sir Isaac Pitman &
Sons, LTD, 1938. (1st ed. 1932. 10th ed. 1996.)
The colleague in the UH Mechanical Engineering
Department who found Kermode's book, and who voiced
many of the concerns I've expressed here, was N.
An example of forgotten lore: This image from
The Wonder Book of Knowledge, from 1923,
explains to young people, the intricacies of
adjusting a fine watch.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.