Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2176:
HOAXES AND SURPRISES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we walk a fine line. 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.

Inventive minds go many places, some more dicey than others. Think, for example, about hoaxes. A hoax can be anything from a practical joke, all the way to the most diabolical deception. Hoaxes cover a vast range of mental machination. But that immense variety reminds us that they're all fed by the same human ingenuity. The most elementary hoax is no more than a joke -- misdirection that sends us off one way, then brings us out in another place altogether.

"I just put in skylights, Paul. And I'm in trouble."
Paul: "Oh. I'm Sorry to hear that, Sidney. What's the problem?"
Sidney: "Aw those troublemakers in the apartment above me -- they're furious."

A Trojan Horse might be the hoax that ended the Trojan War; or if might be the hoax (the virus) that shut down your computer. A hoax might seek to amuse, it might aim to bring down a kingdom or disrupt a computer, but it's always an inventive mind veering toward its dark side.

Yet how sad life would be without the misdirection that makes a hoax -- no humor, no drama, no surprise parties. We'd live in a world without surprise. It'd be a safer world, of course. Think how many political candidates crash and burn when they try to say something in jest? They quickly learn not to play and not to surprise us. That's why they can be such a deadly dull lot.

The word hoax has been around for about two centuries. It probably came from hocus pocus -- the good clean fun of stage magic. The catch is that good clean fun tilts toward mischief.

Which brings us to science and technology: Science is vulnerable since it's all about being surprised by unexpected things. Remember Piltdown Man? Someone gave a fake skull to a world hungry for scientific surprise. Small wonder everyone took the bait. And no wonder that scientists, like politicians, are content to sound tedious. They live in terror of being wrong, just as politicians live in terror of opening up any crack of ambiguity.

Technology is even more vulnerable: it's about a world not discovered, but invented. The Greeks used their word Techni, not for invention, but for the work of artisans or masons. They used the word Mechanike for contrivance -- for mechanical trickery.

Mechanicke was the stage apparatus used to produce a deus ex machina. Using a lever to lift a weight was tricking the gods; it was hoaxing them. Archimedes refused to write about the fine machines he designed. He pleased himself and served others with his devices; but he wouldn't attach his name to anything so low brow.

But then invention really is a kind of hoaxing -- fooling Mother Nature. Inventors, like comedians, writers, poets and discoverers, are trouble makers. They disturb the universe, they disturb our quiet. And more power to them.

Sidney: "Paul, I heard you were working on a perpetual motion machine."
Paul: "Well, I Sure am, Sidney, I'm attaching a crankshaft to my Phillip Glass CD ."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where people I work with are interested in how inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For more on Greek attitudes and Hellenistic technologies, see J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): Chapter 4.

For more on Bigfoot, see Episode 1756. For more on Piltdown Man see Episode 496.


Where Bigfoot went into the forest

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.