Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1954:
KNOWING IT ALL

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we tryto know everything, all at once. 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.

We have a primal craving to control and contain knowledge, you and I -- an ache to be able to see it all at once. There's so much to know, and everything ultimately depends on everything else.

Our energy problems, for example, require no less than a full understanding of all geology, thermodynamics, engineering, chemis-try, meteorology, electricity, law, sociology, economics and human psychology. We really do need to see things whole.

The Internet dangles that unattainable hope right under our noses. All that information so close, so intimate, and yet still lying outside our skulls. We can pick up and study any piece of knowledge. But the terrible catch is that our frontal lobes (our RAM memory) are far too small. We'll never hold it all at once.

In 1911 (long before the Internet) a Chicago group took a stab at meeting this desire. They published The Volume Library: A Concise, Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for both Instruction and Reference. Mine has a thousand large-format pages. Such a wonderful willful thing it is! Such determination, such hubris, such fine childlike belief that we can pack it all in between two covers!

This book, this act of pure bravura, is broken into sections: education, science, government, industry, geography, biography, a dictionary, an atlas. The authors write: The Volume Library

is an honest effort to compress within reasonable compass the vital, digested practical essentials of this vast mass [of all knowledge].

Pre-WW-I light bulb They've left us with a fine snapshot of the early twentieth century. But the knowledge itself (like much Internet information) has been distorted by its compression. Anytime we reduce knowledge to kernels of fact, we sacrifice discernment of meaning.

For example, we're given the requirements for voter registration in different states. In some states soldiers can vote, in some they can't. Same for duelists, or for people labeled as idiots. Yet the exclusion of women is so universal that it's not even mentioned. We also read different child labor laws, ages of com-pulsory education, even weights and measures, from state to state.

But so it's always been. Diderot's great eighteenth century encyclopedia was obsolete before it was finished. It's a fine tool for historians, but it never did have any currency. Another Chicago effort, the Great Books of the Western World, was an attempt to put a complete liberal education in one place. The result was highly unbalanced in favor of humanities over the sciences.

Since antiquity, we've tried to hold knowledge in our hand. That's a necessary part of any educational process. But knowledge finds its way through us, effecting changes, and preparing us for new knowledge. The Internet serves that process; a book can even control it for a moment. But then only its effects remain. We might just as well try to own sunshine.

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

(Theme music)


The Volume Library: A Concise, Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for both Instruction and Reference. (Henry W. Ruoff, Editor-in-Chief) Chicago: The W. E. Richardson Co., 1915/1911.

For a view of flight as seen in 1911, click on the thumbnail below: 1911 aircraft


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.