Today, history repeated. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
It's unnerving when you
finally feel the full impact of having written a
book. I recently finished my book Inventing
Modern, and that impact is just becoming
clear. In it, I painted my portrait of the period
from the late nineteenth, to the middle twentieth,
century. I talked about forces that sent us
spinning off into a radical departure from every
known machine, science, and art.
All that had been on my mind for years. I
grew up with the taste and texture of late days of
the Modern world. Radical new sciences had
echoed around me, and I was surrounded by dramatic
new technologies, sciences, and arts that
reinforced one another. Later, I did hundreds of
radio episodes describing that era.
However, merely knowing is not
life-altering. Once we organize what we know, so we
can tell others about it, things shift.
understanding-magnified, as well as
understanding-altered. This will sound
strange, but when I go back and read my own words,
I learn from them what I didn't know before. And
what I learn is just how profoundly the early
twentieth century departed from all we knew, and
all we were, before it.
To see what happened, look at the popular child
development book, Ages and Stages. It
explains child growth as a series of plateaus.
Take, for example, walking: A child, now
adept at crawling, scuttles around the house. Then
she begins pulling herself to a standing position,
more and more eager to walk on two legs. Here
begins an interlude of intense frustration.
Finally, she walks; finds her new plateau, and is,
once again, strong and confident.
And so it goes. We reached a huge plateau in the
late nineteenth century. We seemed to have
classical physics, impressionist art, steam and
electric power, all under control. But we'd pulled
ourselves into a standing position. Now
impressionism held seeds of modern art. Electricity
held seeds of quantum mechanics.
As I finished writing the book, I realized this was
probably the highest plateau we'd ever scaled. What
lay ahead in the early twentieth century was
greater change than the Medieval Renaissance of the
twelfth century, or the Italian Renaissance of the
fifteenth. It was a huge intellectual and
Now, having written all this, I grow acutely
sensitized to our present situation. We've been on
our plateau for a long time. The computer has been
sending warning signals that suggest a huge
intellectual shift. The texture of war and conflict
is an omen of great shifts in the social order. And
physics, with its string theories, dark matter, and
such, hints at a stunning renewal.
We are children who've pulled ourselves into a
standing position, and not yet learned to walk. Our
frustration is immense, but all the elements are in
place. Things look very bad. However, the rim of a
new, and unexpected, plateau in human affairs is
just at the edge of our reach. We invented
Modern a century ago. What, oh what, are
we on the edge of inventing now?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. H. Lienhard,
Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays,
Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2003.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.