Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1984:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, you may go dancing, but I'll play the tune. 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.

Tuesday March 8, 2005: A colleague stops by my office. He is smoldering. He's just heard a news report about Steve Fossett's solo, nonstop, around-the-world flight in the new Global Flyer airplane. Fossett was the star of the day, the new Charles Lindbergh. My friend shakes his head, "What is going on here, Fossett was just a passenger. They never mentioned Burt Rutan?"

What indeed was going on! Five months earlier Rutan's, SpaceShipOne, was the first airplane to make a suborbital space flight. Nineteen years earlier, Rutan's Voyager made the first two-passenger nonstop flight around the world. Rutan, a Cal-Poly engineering graduate is the great genius of contemporary airplane design. And major news reports took almost no interest in his role.

Mozart suggests an answer to the question in his opera, The Marriage of Figaro, about a lofty Count and his servant Figaro. The married Count has designs on Figaro's fiancée. So Figaro sings the aria, "You may go dancing, but I'll play the tune." He lets the audience know that he, not the Count. really runs things.

In the end, Figaro choreographs not only the Count's comeuppance, but his redemption as well. This is no tale of revenge, but a story of how things get set right again. It's a tale celebrating the people who work out of the public's eye and make the world go around -- or I suppose, make people go around the world.

The story of Rutan and Fossett is nothing new. Listen to stories of "scientists" who put a rocket on the moon. From von Braun, right on down to blastoff, rockets have been the work of engineers. The rocket science was understood back in the eighteenth century.

Or look at printing with moveable type: It was first done by three people: Dritzehn, Heilmann and Gutenberg. Years later, Gutenberg and another innovator, Peter Schoeffer, printed a whole Bible. After that, Schoeffer went on to a long career in printing while Gutenberg did nothing further. I'm perfectly content with the credit we give Gutenberg. He was a driving impatient promoter who made it happen. But I also celebrate all those other names.

It always works like that: Edison had the good sense to hire great engineers like Steinmetz and Tesla. And Mozart based his opera on a play by the French mechanic Pierre Caron. Caron remade himself in the style of the aristocracy, and took the fancy name of Beaumarchais, but he never forgot his engineering origins. His subversive plays helped foment the French Revolution -- helped give the world back to the Figaros behind the scenes.

So I say to my friend, "Relax; you're playing the tune." I'm game to honor Fossett's three-day Odyssey, alone around the world. It was a fine thing. Not nearly as fine as creating the airplane that made the flight, but Rutan's work will still be affecting our lives long after Fossett's fifteen minutes are forgotten.

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

(Theme music)

The Rutan Aircraft home page is: http://www.rutanaircraft.com/

The musical illustration in the audio is from Lucio Gallo singing the aria, "Se voul ballare" (If you would go dancing), Le Nozze di Figaro, Wiener Philharmonike, dir. Claudio Abbado, Deutsche Grammaphone, 445-903.

Global Flyer
Space Ship One

Above" Global Flyer. Below: Space Ship One. My thanks to the Scaled Composites Company (another of the unsung engineering organizations behind the flights) for making these superb photos available to the public on their website: http://www.scaled.com

It should be pointed out that the situation with moveable type is even more extreme than I suggest in this episode. Gutenberg can be credited only with bringing moveable metal alphabetic type to light. The Chinese were printing with moveable ceramic type four centuries before the Europeans. See Episode 894.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.