Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1851:
A NEW DEVICE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we watch as a new device alters our lives. 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.

A friendly young man occupies the seat to the left of mine. If you'd told me he was a basketball player or a graduate student that would've seemed reasonable. He could well be the youngest of a group being inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.

He's been using a hand-held device that looks like a cell phone. Well, it is a cell phone. But it's also a digital camera, music player, and Internet reader with a color screen and small keyboard. It displays a digital photo of his wife and daughters.

This is Jeff Hawkins, architect of the Palm pilot and now Chairman of the Handspring Company. He's the architect of this new Treo 600 device.

Now the Academy President rises to say that it's not enough to just hone the science and practice of engineering; engineers must also see that we alter and improve life on Earth. As he speaks, I glance to my right. There's the engineer who made the chip for Hawkins' new Treo 600. A few days later, I find myself poring over the web -- reading reviews and wondering if I should buy one.

So we need to ask whether this is a fancy toy, or a true step forward in quality of life. The answer is subtler than you might first expect. Think about cars. During their first twenty years, automobiles were generally more trouble than they were worth -- hi-tech toys for those who could afford them. But that stage was absolutely needed before we could integrate cars into everyday life.

Wrist radio Communications devices have been burrowing into our lives ever since we read about Dick Tracy's two-way radio watch in the comics. We're now far beyond Dick Tracy, and our evolving pocket communicators have turned from hi-tech novelty into everyday expectation. Today, seventy percent of American homes have cell phones. By the time this episode is rerun, very few of us will be without them.

Later on, another speaker promotes a future in which we'll all carry pocket devices with terabyte chips that hold all our personal software. He foresees an infrastructure of public computer screens and keyboards that we activate from our pockets.

Well, that's a speculated future, and an interesting one. But these new devices are a created future. In the end, we users choose among the offerings of a vital and volatile marketplace and mold ourselves to them. We shape our future by what we reject and by what we take into our lives. The future never unfolds as anyone predicts. It unfolds only in the way we users determine it.

Now, a new mutation. Hawkins responds to us; then revises according to our wishes. He's also founded a non-profit Neuroscience Institute to work on mathematical models of the human brain. In the end, this isn't about making money, but about plunging into the human process. What I've just caught is a glint of the vast sun-spray of ingenuity that constantly shapes us. And we'd better remember that you and I are players in that rich essential process.

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

(Theme music)


For more on Handspring, Hawkins, and the Treo 600, see: http://www.handspring.com/index.jhtml

Jeff Hawkins and Treo 600
Jeff Hawkins holding the Handspring Treo 600


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.