Today, where would a wise man hide a leaf? 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.
He would, of course, hide his leaf in a forest.
The particular leaf that I recently found was a Glenn Curtiss aeroplane.
Curtiss was the second American to build workable planes and first to
succeed commercially. And one of his rare early aeroplanes appeared in
a wholly unexpected forest -- in Minden, Nebraska. Minden is a town of
three thousand, roughly halfway from Omaha to Cheyenne. Treeless cornfields
stretch around Minden as far as the eye can see.
Here one Harold Warp invented Flex-O-glass and went on to become very
wealthy. He returned in 1953 to create a huge, twenty-acre museum meant to
display the evolution of American Technology. It is, quite simply, the most
remarkable and complete such museum I've seen. And I thought I'd seen them all.
Warp's Pioneer Village, as it's called, has been on my mind since
1994 when I first read about it. Then Elderhostel
offered a trip to see a half million migrating sand hill cranes
along the nearby Platte River, and we seized the opportunity. The cranes alone
were well worth the adventure. But so was the museum.
Warp set out to show us America in the making -- to provide complete histories
of transportation, domestic life,
farm equipment, toys,
and crafts ...
each spelled out in a chronological sequence of original artifacts.
I read the most complete history of the bicycle
that I've ever seen -- not in
words, but in a sequence of actual bikes from throughout the nineteenth century.
And that was only one small bay in a huge warehouse of a building. Another far
smaller bay showed the evolution of --
the parking meter! Just try to
imagine all 25 museum buildings! Warp's collecting was encyclopedic.
So, back to that 1910 Curtiss Pusher, Model D: It's made of canvas, wire,
and sticks. The pilot sat out in the open on a flat wooden panel -- engine and
propeller behind him and one control surface in front. This is flight at its most
primitive even though it was then state-of-the-art. It seems light years behind
his famous Curtiss Jenny, built only five years later. And, of course,
I find a Jenny as well. There's the only civilian autogiro
I've ever seen, and here's America's first jet airplane.
I've studied and taught the history of technology for years. And, after five
lingering visits to this Aladdin's Cave, I could only come away grieving all the
stones -- all the leaves -- left unturned.
It works differently, but equally powerfully, on the imagination of all the visitors
whose interest is only casual. The Smithsonian Institution was once rightly called
America's Attic. While it slides into the role of a theme park, that spirit
lives in Minden, Nebraska. I only hope some new benefactor appears with Warp's
understanding of all the leaves it takes to make a tree. For this remote attic of
our rich heritage desperately needs to be sustained and developed into the coming
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode recalls an
Elderhostel week with the Sand Hill Cranes
and other birds -- a program run twice each year by Dr. Doyle Howitt, University
of Nebraska at Kearny. My thanks to Marshall Nelson, Manager, and Monica Miller,
Office Manager, Harold Warp Pioneer Village Museum,
Minden, NE, for their very helpful counsel. All photos by J. Lienhard including
one of a Harold Warp photo in the Museum.
The question, "Where does a wise man hide a leaf?" is posed by G. K. Chesterton's
character, Father Brown in the short story,
The Sign of the Broken Sword.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.