Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2236:
INDUSTRIAL DESIGN

by John H. Lienhard

Today, another look at form and function. 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.

Here's a curious picture book, Industrial Design: A-Z. The authors describe work by scores of designers -- from the late 18th century up through the late 20th. And, as we read this book about design as art, a peculiar message emerges.

It's arranged alphabetically, so we begin with the first A -- the Allgemeine Elektricitäts Gesellschaft or AEG -- and we continue to the closing Z for Zeppelin. As soon as Edison demonstrated his version of the light bulb, a group of Germans bought his license and formed AEG. Then they began making all kinds of electrical equipment. Our Z designer, Count Zeppelin, began building great dirigibles two decades later.

Neither of these evoke design as we imagine it, but look at the pictures: The art nouveau images of bare bulbs and motors reveal those items, not so much as we might know them in the world around us, but as creatures of their makers' imaginations. Likewise, the Zeppelin image might've been rendered by Maxwell Parish, buoying just over the golden tip of a cloud-enveloped skyscraper.

So we ask: Was the beauty put there by the artist or the technologist? Of course, the book is full of creations by Buckminster Fuller, Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and the other famous designers. Beauty is what we expect of such people and beauty is what we get. But we're caught off guard when we find the Wright Brothers' airplane, and Chester Carlson's XeroX machine.

1837 Deere ploughThen we look at the grace and balance of the Wright airplane. As pure art it simply outclasses Buckminster Fuller's failed Dymaxion automobile (that awkward streamlined ugly duckling!) The fine clean lines of Carlson's first commercial XeroX machine settle one's psyche (never mind the paper blizzard it created.) John Deere's 1837 self-scouring steel plough has that same effect. Balance is beauty and just seeing his plough is pleasure.

Dreyfuss' 20th-Century LimitedDesigner Henry Dreyfuss gave us remarkable items. His 20th-century Limited locomotive was wonderfully dramatic with its gladiatorial prow and Cyclops headlamp. But he also designed the familiar telephone set used by AT&T from the late 1940s until 1984. That was the familiar dial phone that held the receiver horizontally above its base. Now there was a design with staying power!

So the book goes: Sony, Olivetti, Chrysler -- Bosch and Boeing. And when we're done, it dawns on us that it's very hard to create the machine that truly serves us and not find beauty in it. Something would be very out-of-whack if it were otherwise.

WedgwoodPerhaps that becomes clearest with this book's oldest designer, in this book -- Josiah Wedgwood. Few people realize that Wedgwood's main product was cheap white china made for the tables of working people. All that fancy china was only a sideline. Wedgwood china is so overwhelmingly beautiful just because it emerges from that fine world of pure unadorned function.

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

(Theme music)


C. & P. Fiell, Industrial Design: A-Z. (Köln: Taschen, 2003) (Images above by JHL)

1959 XeroX machine
An original 1959 XeroX machine (Houston Printing Museum, Photo by JHL)

Dreyfuss' Model 300 telephone
Henry Dreyfuss' Model 300 telephone (Museum of 20th-Century Technology, Wharton, TX. Photo by JHL)

Wedgwood cup
Example of Wedgwood's common china (Traveling antique sale. Photo by JHL)

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