Today, we go to a museum. 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.
Museums are on my mind these days. During Summer and Fall
of 2006, Houston's Museum of Printing History is doing an exhibit of old books that've
been the basis of many Engines programs -- old books that I feature in my
new book, How Invention Begins. One section of that book is about the
sudden rise of cheap books in the early 19th century -- about their transforming
effect upon America.
Invention flowed from independent people who absorbed information with little help
from large educational infrastructures. So the exhibit is where two avenues of independent
learning meet. Museums and books are places where we can learn on our own -- follow our
own rhythm. There's rather little difference between a book and a museum when we bring
our unanswered questions to either one.
In any new town, I move toward museums and bookshops the way a moth moves toward a flame.
In the museums, I ask, what do these people want to show me? The answer tells me who they
are -- what they see that I have not yet seen.
As I look, and read labels, more questions form. I lose myself in questions, drifting from
label to display case, back to label -- then breaking free of the display sequence, moving
back and forth among cases, answering my own new questions, as they arise, and finding my
own optimal sequence.
In the book, How Invention Begins, I trace similar seemingly patternless patterns
in the rise of invention. The exhibit in the Printing Museum can be traced, maybe best be
traced, just this way. It's titled Ghosts in the Books, because in it we meet
ghosts of old owners of individual books. What these ghosts learned from their books
depended upon just what they brought to the books ...
Young Michael Faraday read a book on chemistry written for young people, and went on to set
the foundations of theoretical electricity. William James read about the construction of a
catenary curve and went on to develop the philosophy of pragmatism. Richard Newton, read
about mechanics and went on to fight for the abolition of slavery. The wholly unpredictable
ectoplasm of accomplishment rises out of these old books.
Too many people look upon museums as housing ghosts of the dead, rather than the still-vital
elements of a former life. They see museums as houses of dust. But these ghosts have immense
vitality, and the fruit of their lives serves us today. It all depends upon us the viewer,
doesn't it? Approach a book or a museum or a school passively and the result can only be deadening.
But if we invest ourselves in the learning process that they all offer, wonderful things can
happen. That's what makes learning buoyant. So, if you're anywhere near Houston during
mid-2006, pay a visit to our Museum of Printing History. But do it with your curiosity
unsatisfied. Then you'll meet some of the most lively ghosts around. And, if you're not
in Houston -- well, these living ghosts inhabit your own museums, and they are worth meeting
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
The Ghosts in the Books exhibit runs from June 22 through Oct. 19, 2006 in the Museum
of Printing History, 1324 West Clay, Houston, TX 77019 (Curated by Todd Samuelson.)
Ghosts in the Books is also the
title/subject of the 2006-2007 KUHF-FM thank-you-gift-CD for contributors to the radio station.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.