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
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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 149.