Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1757:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we need to chase invisible 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.

Many years ago, the first producer of this program wondered aloud about what he would miss if he suddenly found himself back in the world of his childhood. How much change had he adapted to, unconsciously? It was an interesting question.

As a child in the 1960s, he'd never seen color TV, microwave ovens, personal computers, or pocket calculators. I'm much older, and his '60s seem to me like yesterday. Did I really survive without a word processor? We had no digital displays, touch-tone phones, cable TV, or orbiting satellites to speed our communications. Airline tickets were all written by hand. I try to remember not having CDs, or being unable to carry my own music in the car.

Yet much has hardly changed at all. While automobiles are more comfortable, they don't get us around any faster. How much has air travel changed since the first jets flew in the late 1950s? Our biggest technological revolution has been the astonishing access to information that has entered our offices and homes. It's done so with enormous speed, but also rather quietly.

Go back another generation, starting with my childhood in the 1930s. I saw a lot less new life-altering technology. Medicine came a long way, of course. Dentistry left the Stone Age between the 1930s and 1960s. Air transportation settled into an established pattern of jet traffic. The national highway system came of age.

Go back one more generation and you'll find greatest change of all. In 1893, my father was born into a community without telephones, autos, radios, airplanes, electric lights, or electric power. The major technologies that came into use at the beginning of the twentieth century were large-scale systems that involved power.

Technology rewrote American life in my father's youth. And, as a child, I was more acutely aware than he that I lived in a world whose fabric had been ripped out and rewoven. Many of my generation have been disappointed when we ceased to feel the same exhilaration with technological change that we'd known as children.

And I pointedly use the word feel. For this is subjective. Our heads know about the huge changes that've been afoot, but our hearts do not. When I think about my childhood, two generations behind me, I feel it as being entirely continuous with life today.

Separating the texture of life then from life now is the work of the intellect. That's because technological change, even very radical change, since it is naturally incremental, remains almost invisible. One day we have an improved steering system or a new computer, a better antibiotic or a more effective farming method. They're all there, but they don't seem to add up.

That's why we need to sit back, from time to time, and do the addition. Our technologies always blindside us when we fail to do the sums in an ongoing way. The only way to keep change from being invisible is to keep struggling to see it in the aggregate.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 149.

Sands of time
Sands of time

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H. Lienhard.