Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2216:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we raise your great grandparents. 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.

Edward Sylvester Ellis Edward Sylvester Ellis was to 19th-century dime novels what Barbara Cartland was to the 20th-century romance novel. He was a writing machine. And he was an equally prolific textbook writer for young people. I'd never heard of him when I ran across an 1889 book, Ellis's Primary Physiology or Good Health for Boys and Girls.

He justifies the physiology part by randomly including illustrations of skeletons, muscles, teeth, the inner ear, and nerve networks. But his narrative is largely untroubled by their presence. Ellis knows what's good for children and he rattles on about it for 127 pages. That same year he also wrote Storm Mountain, The Last War Trail, and a life of Kit Carson under his own name (I didn't even try to track all the others he wrote that year under various pseudonyms.) So let's see what he has to say about health:

He begins, "Every boy and girl ought to live a hundred years. When worn out at last by old age, death will come like sweet sleep, without pain, or suffering." Two years later, doctor and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote The Deacon's Masterpiece. He gave us a surprisingly similar metaphor for a long life. His deacon built a wonderful one-hoss shay so perfectly that it ran a hundred years, then failed all at once and collapsed in a pile of dust.

The catch is, Holmes was poking fun at reality, while Ellis was not. We find little humor as Ellis spills out his instructions. He advises bathing weekly in winter and daily in summer. But then he says, "... it is best to plunge at once under the surface," and we realize that, in his world, one bathed by going swimming. That weekly winter dip was to be done in a very cold pond.

Ellis is strongly opposed drinking much liquid. He says, "If you have formed the habit of drinking while eating, stop it at once." And he's talking about water. "The less we take, the more comfortable will we feel," he tells us. But, before you laugh, consider the eight-by-eight rule. In recent years we've been hectored to drink eight, eight-ounce glasses of water daily. Only now have medical experts started telling us that might be excessive.

Of course we all have to be wary of advice; and Ellis is pleased to give all the advice anyone might absorb. He rightly tells children to exercise, not to smoke, to learn to swim, to brush their teeth. But odd things creep in. Under exercise, he says that one place we can see its benefits is in the hand and forearm of a skillful penman. Well, his hand was well-exercised indeed.

So, why do I bother with this human word processor? I do so because he is a window into an age. As his pen moves, his mind seems not for a moment to impede the flow of attitudes of his time. For here we read a view of America after the Civil War that's rare in its clarity. It's the same thinking that raised my father, born four years later. And it's given to us in a perfectly raw, perfectly unprocessed form.

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

(Theme music)

E. S. Ellis, Ellis's Primary Physiology or Good Health for Boys and Girls. (New York: Taintor Brothers & Co., 1889)

See the biography of Edward Sylvester Ellis in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (Clifton, N.J.: J. T. White, 1893- ). For more Ellis biographies, see:

Below: Three dime novel covers, in chronological sequence. Whether or not Ellis wrote any of these, one might determine with sufficient effort.

Cover of an early dime novel

Another dime novel cover

A 1903 (late) dime novel

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