An illustration in the section on carriages shows a new
horse-drawn French ambulance. The coachman sat in the
open air in front of a boxlike enclosure. It was lit by
windows, and had a shelf for gauze and dressings. The
wicker stretcher cushioned the patient from a jolting
ride over cobblestones. We see the symbol of the
then-28-year-old Red Cross organization.
Today, we visit 1892. 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.
One of the hardest things to
do, when we look at the past, is to form an
accurate picture of what life was like at any
particular time. For example, every movie about
ancient Rome shows nobles on horses, using
stirrups. But the Romans didn't have stirrups.
So, what was it like to ride a horse during Julius
Caesar's time. Or what did people eat and wear?
Where did they go to the bathroom? How many people
could read? Most of that's documented; but few of
us have put it together in our minds. Most of us
are stuck with movie sets when we try to picture
life in ancient Rome.
That came home to me as I looked at a far more
recent time. I've been reading an 1892
Cyclopædia of Applied Mechanics. I
thought I knew the 1890s pretty well, but even this
A section on bicycles stresses the new ball bearings,
wire spokes, and rudimentary tires. A much longer
section treats electric rail systems, which'd been
operating less than a decade. Electric trolleys had
just put cable cars out of business. Now they were
doing what bicycles could not do, going beyond cities
to create early bedroom communities.
The book says a lot about electric motors. The
dynamo was coming into use as a motor-generator set
where the motor was a steam engine. But most of the
new electric motors were served by power lines from
central electric power plants -- the same wires
that drove those trolleys.
machines were revolutionizing domestic life and
they get a lot of attention. They were all run by
thin leather belts, connected to a foot treadle. No
electrical assistance here, nor was there any in
the very-new hand-cranked phonograph machines. The
book shows very rudimentary typewriters. No common
form had yet emerged. This was a world in flux.
Sections on ordnance reflect a fascination with
large steel-based industry. They practically
salivate over the big iron guns of the Krupp
factories. Torpedo boats also get special attention
as new instruments of war.
If you and I were placed in that radically changing
world with a complete knowledge of cultural
history, we'd be able to identify the date within a
year or two. It would be that distinctive.
But none of us has such knowledge. The
past blurs in our minds. When did I first see a
color TV or first wear polyester? The past blurs.
And, if you or I suddenly found ourselves back as
far in time as ancient Rome, we would have a hard
time guessing the date within five hundred years.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Appleton's Cyclopædia of Applied
Mechanics. (Park Benjamin, ed.) New York: D.
Appleton and Company, 1892.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.