Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2401
THE WORLD AT OUR FINGERTIPS

by Andrew Boyd

Today, the world at our fingertips. 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.

I look at them almost every day. Six books. What they have in common is, well, size. Theyíre big. Laid on their side, they form a nice, stable platform for my computer screen — just the right height for me to comfortably surf the Web. Itís a great metaphor — books as the foundation for all that information on the Internet. But letís not forget the books.

six books stacked vertically

Take the bottom-most in the stack — a 1962 world atlas. It shows its age: two Germanys; Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in place of the many new republics that have since popped up. The U.S population is listed as 180 million. A half-century later, the populationís over 300 million (a fact I uncovered in just a few seconds with Google). But world geography hasnít changed that much. I always learn a new fact or two leafing through an atlas. I just discovered Seattle is further north than the entire state of Maine, and further South than Paris, France. Atlases are fun, and as mesmerizing as the weather channel.

Next up is the American Heritage History of World War I, published in 1964. Photographs, drawings, and maps fill the pages. Itís better than anything I can find on the Web.

The next three books were published as part of a 1968 series called the Educator Classic Library. My family ordered them when mail-order books were popular. They were purchased for us kids, but my mother was the most dedicated reader. The surviving titles include Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Theyíve been made into movies and TV shows so many times itís tough to keep track of the many versions. We forget they started as books written in the nineteenth century — books so good they captured the imagination through the simple act of reading.

0ffice, computer screen with books stacked underneath

Topping off the stack is Cosmos, a book by the late Carl Sagan. Itís based on a thirteen part television series aired on PBS in 1980. Back then there were no Discovery or History channels. Just the three networks and PBS. Cosmos was fresh and new and a milestone in popular education. I planned my schedule so I could watch each episode. It was a big deal. Like so many other people, I was captivated as Sagan marveled at the immensity of our universe. His exuberance — and pronunciation — made the phrase ďbillions and billionsĒ a staple of the cultural lexicon; his awe of the universe inspired awe in his viewers. Cosmos remains one of the most watched programs in the history of public television, having reached over a half billion people. Not quite billions and billions, but close.

Two worlds at my fingertips. The screen above; but letís not forget the stack below.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Notes and References:

The American Heritage History of World War I. New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, 1964.

C. Sagan. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.

The Curtis-Doubleday World Atlas. New York: Doubleday in cooperation with the Curtis Publishing Company, 1962.

R. L. Stevenson. Treasure Island. Published as book 1 of the Educator Classic Library. Santa Rosa, California: Classic Press, 1968.

J. Verne. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Published as book 2 of the Educator Classic Library. Santa Rosa, California: Classic Press, 1968.

J. Wyss. The Swiss Family Robinson. Published as book 4 of the Educator Classic Library. Santa Rosa, California: Classic Press, 1968.

Photographs by E. A. Boyd.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.