Today, we name a new machine. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Our machines normally receive their
permanent name only after they've achieved a certain level
of maturity -- after they've settled themselves into our
lives. Take the airplane, for example: A hundred years ago,
we had dozens of terms to describe it: aerial
velocipede, aerial screw machine,
aerodrome, aeromotive engine, bird
machine, and flying machine. Those names began
converging ten years after the Wright brothers flew. Now
we've settled on just two terms: airplane and
No one I knew had a refrigerator when I was little.
We had an icebox with a rack on top where we put a
new fifty-pound block of ice every few days. I still
forget, and annoy my younger son, by calling our
refrigerator an icebox. During the 1930s we tried all kinds
of terms for the then-new machine: Frigidaire,
electric icebox, and of course, refrigerator.
The words engine and machine show up again
and again when we first name devices. They come from Latin
and Greek roots and broadly refer to devices that carry out
functions. So the steam engine was first called a fire
engine. It still keeps the engine part of that
name. We still say sewing machine; but no one calls
a telescope an optical engine any more, the way they
did in the 17th century. I especially like the name Babbage
gave his first computer 160 years ago. He called it an
analytical engine. And that tradition lingers. Today
we check software with parsing engines, and we find
things with search engines. Engine is a name with
great staying power.
Foreign names cling to new gadgets for a while, but they
tend to fade. Airplane designers have left behind the
French words empenage, fuselage, and nacelle
in favor of English equivalents: tail, body, and
pod. But those words were still common when I was a
kid. The German name Zeppelin was given to one form
of what the French call a dirigible. Nowadays we're
increasingly inclined to use the English word airship. The
only time a writing desk gets called an escritoire is when
a dealer hopes to jack its price up.
The first names we give new technologies tie them to older
ones. An early name for an airship was aerial
locomotive. Horseless carriages became motor
cars, and we finally settled on the surprisingly
complicated, but completely descriptive term,
Auto-Mobile. Train and airline passengers alike
still pay coach fares.
Finally: here's a game we all might play: Over the next few
years, keep track as we change computer-related names.
Watch as we run through words like screen, CRT and
monitor, or Internet and Web. Watch as
we select among names like minicomputer, PC, work
station, or simply the machine. Watch as these
systems become metaphors for who we are. For, when we
finally settle on names, what we'll really be doing is
taking the machine fully into our lives.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 55.
Three flying machines with three different names from
adjacent pages of the 1911 Encyclopaedia
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.