Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1993:
TECHNOLOGY, SCIENCE AND CONTRADICTION

by John H. Lienhard

Today, technology, science and contradiction. 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.

Henry Augustus Rowland was a leading nineteenth-century American physicist. He overrode his mother, who wanted him to become a clergyman, and went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, to become a civil engineer. He worked as a surveyor, taught at a small college, then returned to Rensselaer -- not to teach engineering, but rather physics.

There, 24-year-old Rowland did a difficult experimental study of magnetic permeability. When he sent a copy to James Clerk Maxwell, Maxwell was highly impressed; and fired it off to The Philosophical Magazine for publication. Rowland's fame spread. Johns Hopkins University stole him away from Rensselaer.

Later, when electricity was better understood, it would turn out that he hadn't measured what he thought he had, his results were flawed by hysteresis, his math was circular. But, for now, the work revealed an extraordinary ability. Johns Hopkins sent him to Europe for a year to learn more, and to buy equipment. In Cambridge, he met Maxwell. In Berlin, he worked for a while in Helmholtz's lab. There he cooked up an experiment that showed how motion could affect a magnetic field. Maxwell was so impressed that he penned a few lines of doggerel about that one:
The mounted disk of Ebonite
     Has whirled before nor whirled in vain,
Rowland of Troy, that doughty knight,
     Convection currents did obtain,

Back in America, Rowland measured the conversion of work to heat more accurately than anyone before. He made the most precise measurement of the ohm. All the while, he displayed great mechanical sophistication. His optical gratings for spectroscopy were a crowning achievement. The trick is to scribe as many parallel lines as possible on a grid. We use those grids, for example, to measure the chemical makeup of planets -- or stars.

Now we do that with sophisticated micro-engraving machines, but Rowland still lived a machine tool world. So he invented a special tool that mass-produced large grids with 43,000 lines per-inch.

At the beginning, I mentioned contradiction: In 1883 Rowland gave a very important talk at the American Society for the Advancement of Science. It was A Plea for Pure Science. He said science should not get bogged down in its own technology. He disparaged the same kind of inventing that had made him famous.

What is one to make of that! Maybe he was saying that the machine should serve the idea -- not the other way around. Or maybe he just didn't worry about consistency. Look closer at Rowland and we find more contradiction. He often spoke hurtfully, yet friends saw him as compassionate. He was a poor teacher turning out great students. He got it right by first getting it wrong. So, I'll let others worry about consistency. Henry Rowland reminds me that we never learn anything in a comfortably consistent world.

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

(Theme music)


I. Remsen, Henry Augustus Rowland: Physicist. Leading American Men of Science, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910): pp. 404-426.

D. J. Kevles, Rowland, Henry Au-gustus. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Vol. XII, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975): pp. 577-579.

Henry Augustus Rowland
Image from Leading American of Science.


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