Today, a bad movie and radical change. 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.
If we now live in a
postmodern era, when did we enter it? When did
Modern end? I was raised in the 1930s with
the word modern whirling about my ears. We
were a modern people in a modern age. We had
automobiles, radios, airplanes, telephones, and we
knew we'd soon have television as well. The
atmosphere was charged with expectations for
technological change and an ever-better life.
That shifted in the 1950s. New miracles lay ahead,
of course, but computers, the Internet, and our
dramatically longer lives were not yet on our radar
screens. Instead, we emerged from WW-II filled with
a new fear of the technologies we'd already
As a Berkeley graduate student in the late fifties,
I worked on the way boiling water moderated nuclear
fission in a power reactor. The atom was a clear
presence in our lives, and I had by then glimpsed
only from the corner of my eye how we'd begun
living in fear -- not just of the atom, but of all
the technologies we'd created.
My wife and I were both in school, working hard.
Saturday nights we'd decompress by heading off to
The New Peerlex Theater down in Oakland.
They ran triple features of every trashy
science-fiction movie of the fifties: The
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Plan 9 from
Outer Space--you name it; we saw it.
One of those movies stayed with us -- Ed Wood's
wonderfully dreadful Bride of the Monster.
Bad as it was, it had one unforgettable line that
perfectly captured what was going on around us.
Near the end, the despairing mad scientist, Bela
Lugosi, turns upon the camera with terrible
intensity and says,
Home. I have no home.
Hunted...despised...living like an animal -- the
jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I
can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of
people -- a race of atomic supermen which will
conquer the world!
We chortled, left the theater, and went back to
work not at all understanding how powerfully Lugosi
(and all the others like him) had spoken to the
public. I went back to building my Faltung integral for the
increase of void fraction during a transient power
surge. I kept dreaming of safe core cooling and
It was soon clear enough that we would not see
nuclear-powered cars or airplanes for a long time.
Worse than that, we'd all heard Bela Lugosi
promising terrible transmutations of the human
species. The movie Them promised
thirty-foot ants. We were somehow back to alchemy:
if we could transmute uranium, couldn't we just as
well transmute a frog into Godzilla?
So the public grew afraid. Science and high
technology, once so full of hope, now brought fear:
fear of the bomb, fear of transmutation gone
rampant, fear of the Russians.
Modern evaporated for a season. Technology
and its potential for serving us are still there to
be claimed. It would be nice to see it once again
awakening the intensity of hope that surrounded me
as a child, so long ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The movie Bride of the Monster was directed
by Ed Wood and released in 1956.
To see the wonderful Bela Lugosi scene Click Here.
H.A. Johnson, V.E. Schrock, F.B. Selph, J.H.
Lienhard, and Z.R. Rosztoczy, "Transient Pool
Boiling of Water at Atmospheric Pressure," Int.
Dev. in Heat Transfer, ASME, N.Y., 1963, p.
244 et seq.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.