Today, a bright new century. 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 refer to the bright new
twentieth century, not the twenty-first. A 1904
issue of The Literary Digest helps to
usher it in. The section of the magazine on
politics analyses the postal scandal, lynchings in
Ohio, Indian land scandals, and William Randolph
Hearst's bid for the Democratic presidential
In the section on letters and art we worry
about the declining taste for poetry, and we ask
what makes a book sell. We hope that Henry James
will return to America from England. We identify
Dostoyevsky as the dominant force in Russian
The section on religion is suspicious of Catholics
and Mormons, supports missionary work, and is
shocked by the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas whose
racist writings show how we were drifting in the
years before WW-I. (His own church comes back at
him, telling him he needs to look at Booker T.
Washington and the Tuskegee Institute.)
And so we catch a glimpse of America entering the
last century and taking the measure of things, just
as we try to do today. It was an America skidding
toward race riots and war. But it was also an
America about to be turned on its ear by new art,
new literature, and the formative agency of radical
new science. It was a world being reinvented as no
other new century had ever been.
This Literary Digest does not miss the role that
science and technology are playing. Where are
the Wireless Telegraphs? cries a headline. In
1901, radio pioneer Marconi had received a signal
of three clicks, which may or may not have actually
crossed the Atlantic. After that, hope and
expectation raced ahead of invention.
A scant twenty-seven months after Marconi, the
article laments that radio hasn't yet been put to
use. Just twelve years later, it seemed perfectly
reasonable to expect a young lad to build his own
radio for a Boy Scout merit badge in wireless
Another article announces the discovery that
Antarctica is actually a landmass under all the
ice. It's been deceptive, because the huge ice
packs extend out over the shoreline and into the
But the truly remarkable
item in this domestic magazine is one on radiation.
Two photos, one of a building and one of a flame,
have both been taken through an opaque wall using
some form of radiation -- probably akin to X-rays.
The writer pieces together what various scientists
have been saying to explain radiation.
By now, scientists see that the atomic structure of
matter -- of, say, radium -- changes as it
radiates. They also suspect that matter turns into
energy during radiation. A year later, Einstein
would write e = mc² and quantify that idea.
But this is a year before special relativity, and
here this literary magazine tells us:
Matter, hitherto regarded as inert and able
only to give up energy that has been furnished to
it, is, on the contrary, a colossal reservoir of
What a time that was to've been alive!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Literary Digest, New York: March 10,
1904, p. 393-430.
concerns that we share today.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.