Today, we're between two worlds in an old library. 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.
Old books yield up their secrets in
unexpected ways. Here's the 1872 English version of
Gaston Tissandier's book on water. A notice, pasted
inside the front cover by the Richmond Library
Association, identifies this as Book Number 1,231. No
Dewey Decimal or Library of
Congress classification -- not yet. When you have
only a few thousand books, those four numbers are enough.
The notice also lists
library rules. The privilege of borrowing books costs
a dollar a year. We can borrow one book at a time, for
two weeks. We can borrow two more if we're willing to pay
another five cents for each one.
Like that library notice, this book also takes us back to
a time of incipient change. No one writing about water
today would see the drama of the ocean the same way
Tissandier does. He devotes almost half his book to the
way water moves over the earth.
He explains tides, rain, geysers, icebergs, the movement
of silt, and marine life. The technical stuff is all
there. But this goes to a place beyond science. We find
an unexpected dimension of theater. Many ships had steam
engines by then, but they still
carried sail. If we went overseas, we did so on the
sea, and we did so with canvas billowing overhead.
We still lived with all the metaphors of sailing ships.
When the book explains that the ocean deeps are far
calmer than the stormy surface, it evokes the mariner's
for calm. The translator recites some anonymous
lines, which, I was surprised to find, he'd taken from
Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Far, far beneath, the noise of tempests dieth,
And silver waves chime ever peacefully;
And no rude storm, how fierce so e'er it flieth,
Disturbs the Sabbath of that deeper sea.
He provides one wild steel engraving after another
showing storm-tossed ships and coasts, icebergs, and
He goes on to show how the atoms in water are somehow
reflected in the hexagonal structure of snowflakes (just
how was not yet clear.) We learn about the use of water
-- aqueducts, drinking water -- and we read an odd
explanation of how to make
seltzer water. He shows us primitive ice-making
machines and ice-cream makers.
Tissander surprises us with his interest in public
bathing. While book-owning was a private matter, just
beginning to enter the public domain in 1872, bathing had
only just begun turning in the
opposite direction. Domestic tubs didn't have running
water. Showers were unknown. Bathhouses were still
So imagine entering this embryonic
library and finding this book. Book and library alike
are caught in a time-warp of rapid change. The book
finishes with this flourish:
"... the victories of the intellect [he says] can never be confined to the narrow limits of world."
Nor, I want to shout, to the narrow limits of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.