Today, 1900 -- the year. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
How else to observe my
nineteen-hundredth episode than by looking back at
the year 1900 -- the year our Earth shifted
on its axis. We were just beginning a vast
scientific, artistic, and technological revolution.
Yet we read just how invisible that tsunami of
change was, when we open the 1900 Century
We were at peace. We'd just won the Spanish
American War at a cost of 20,000 Filipino soldiers,
and ten times that number of Filipino civilians.
But we (here in the United States) had got off with
4200 dead and a lot of new real estate. A year
later, the war was no longer on our minds.
Instead, we read long serialized articles on
Napoleon and Cromwell. Admiral Dewey is barely
mentioned in an article on how to mount a
successful parade. The article offers Dewey's
postwar parade as a fine example. And it ends by
noting that electricity promises great improvements
in the traditional torchlight parade.
Throughout the issues are scattered art and poetry.
The poetry generally sounds like this:
See, as we climb the woodland way,
Yon rose-tinged blossoms shine!
And this, more white than acolyte
That guards a hidden shrine!
Ever so pastoral and pretty -- none of the hard
edges being developed by the turn-of-the-century
poets we know today -- no W. B. Yeats, Stephen
Crane, or A. E. Housman here. Several articles look
back to Tennyson, Browning, and Lowell as model
The art is equally retro -- rich nostalgic salon
art. No impressionists; none of the first modern
artists. The border trimming hasn't quite made it
to art nouveaux. A young Maxfield Parish
has illustrated a sentimental poem about praying in
a forest. The Pre-Raphaelites are the clear model
of what art should be.
One real harbinger of the new century
stands out like a sore thumb. Nikola Tesla has a
long article on The Problem of Increasing Human
Energy. He talks about many things, including
several schemes for using solar energy. He also
devotes several pages to his new notion of wireless
telegraphy. Here is the theoretical foundation of
radio. A year later, Marconi would build the first
successful radio. Meanwhile Century
Magazine presents Tesla, more as a colorful
scientist than as a serious harbinger of any
These lovely old issues, bathed in sentiment,
become a serious warning as you and I set about to
build our new century. We're no more able to see
what's coming than these writers were. Like them,
we try to extrapolate a future from what we've seen
in the last twenty years -- computers, biology,
The true future is already among us, but it's very
hard to pick out from a thousand hints. To see how
that works, look at one more remarkable verse from
the magazine -- one in which the poet could well be
steering us away from the relativity
theory, just about to blindside us. He says:
Time and Space and Number flow
onward; none shall know
Whence they come, or where they go.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Century Magazine, New York: Vols. LIX and
LX, November 1899 through October 1900. (Thus I've
fudged by two months in the 1900 identification of
the episode.) The poetry quotes are, respectively,
from In the Southern Alleghanies, by Marion
Pelton Guild, November 1899; and The
Infinites, by Curtis Hidden Page, March
Maxfield Parrish's illustration for A Hill
by Mirian Warner Wildman
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.