Today, let's talk about completed
technologies. 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.
Some years ago, I heard the
great baroque violinist Reinhard Goebel playing
music by Heinrich Biber. Painted inside the lid of
the accompanying harpsichord was the oddest motto.
It said: Scientia non habet inimicum nisi
ignorantiam -- Knowledge has no enemy other
than ignorance. That thought struck me as both
puzzling and circular.
In any case, baroque violins don't really differ
that much from modern ones. The fine Amatis and
Strads all had this form until about 1800. Then
their necks were lengthened -- their gut strings
replaced with metal. Their bridges were arched, and
players began using different bows. Ostensibly,
they became the powerful modern instruments we all
know. But there's a catch.
Change hardly touched the form of the instrument,
only how it was played. Modern violins are forceful
and declamatory in comparison with their baroque
ancestors. Baroque playing produces a gentler tone
with almost no vibrato. Nuanced bowing gives it a
sort of swelling-fading sound, very free-flowing
The instruments themselves are practically the
same. Some new technologies improve old
technologies; others replace them. But the violin
was neither improved nor replaced. Players simply
found a new way to use it. So much technology is
All my life, I've wanted to replicate the taste of
the homemade ice cream my
great-aunt used to make for me. Ice-cream makers
advertise that homemade taste, but they don't
duplicate it. Today's ice cream doesn't improve my
great-aunt's technology. It simply replaces it with
ice cream that's available to all.
DC-3 airplanes can still
be found serving people who need small transport
planes to get in and out of short landing strips
and make short hops. Today's airplanes don't often
have to serve those functions; but when they do,
the DC-3, from 1936, still works.
Later buildings didn't improve on Chartres Cathedral or replace it.
TV didn't replace or improve upon radio. We take up
new technologies for many reasons -- only
occasionally to improve existing ones. Technologies
that survive, and claim their place in our lives
and legends, usually do so in perpetuity. Many
functions of the book have been picked up by the
Internet, but the book we know has been around for
2200 years, and it's not about to go away.
The baroque violin, my great-aunt's ice cream, the
book, the DC-3, silverware, beds, analog clock-faces, door-hinges,
the familiar paper clip,
and the snap mousetrap
are all things we finally got right. When we did,
they stopped changing. Beethoven didn't replace
baroque music; he only supplemented it.
And I'm back to that strange inscription on the
harpsichord -- "The only enemy of knowledge is ignorance."
The baroque violin is one more
technology representing knowledge that'll stand up
to any rational challenge. The only attack that
can harm such permanence is ignorance -- it
can still be (and sometimes is) forgotten.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds