Today, we talk about Christopher Robin and American
industry. 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.
When I was young, my father
read the poems of A.A. Milne to me. Milne was a
playwright, but his real fame came from the poems
he wrote for and about his young son, Christopher
The Milne poems center on a theme. It is that we
must bind ourselves to action. He tells of Sir
Thomas Tom of Appledore, the knight whose armor
didn't squeak. We're told that
Sir Thomas Tom, sitting at home and
oiling his armor, made a typical Milne moral fable of
action and inaction.
... if he didn't fight too much,
It wasn't that he did not care
For blips and buffetings and such,
But felt that it was hardly fair
To risk, by frequent injuries,
A brain as delicate as his.
Today, America itself retreats from the world of
making and doing. We might well reread Milne's
simple messages. Look at cars, chemicals,
commercial airplanes, machine tools, computers,
steel, and textiles. In 1972 our imports in these
areas were twice our exports. Today we import far
more of these goods than we make. In most of these
key areas our trade balances have become
Like Sir Thomas Tom, our post-war engineering
schools began regarding the brain as too delicate
an instrument to occupy the coarse world of
production and manufacturing. A few years ago, we
thought America would emerge as the great
international broker of a new commodity --
information. Yet we've now taken some of our worst
beatings in information-handling equipment. Our
trade balances have crashed in consumer
electronics, semiconductors, computers, and
copiers, right along with cars and heavy machinery.
We can read these troubles in the words we use when
we speak to our young. A.A. Milne described his son
Christopher on a rainy day: "Let it rain! Who
cares? I've a train upstairs, With a brake Which I
make From a string Sort of thing." The next
generation was told only that they "deserved a
break today." We've replaced the vision of a child,
actively creating his own material world, with a
deadly cocoon of inaction.
So I remember my father reading me Milne's story of
the king whose lord high chancellor wouldn't run to
answer the door. "'I've often walked, but I never,
never, ran. Never, never, never,' quoth he."
Finally, the king answered his own door and found a
beggar. Straightaway, he made him the new lord high
chancellor. Then Milne tells us:
That's more than advice for a child.
It's the best advice we can give to a country that's
stopped making things.
This tale [points a moral] on the way.
... Whatever Fortune brings,
Don't be afraid of doing things.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Milne, A.A., The Knight Whose Armour Didn't Squeak.
The Engineer. and King Hilary and the Beggarman.
Now We are Six. New York: E.P. Dutton
& Co., Inc. 1927. (The action theme is gently but
inexorably driven home in almost all the poems in the
book. I've quoted only from the three cited.)
Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M.,
Made in America: Regaining the Productive
Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989.
KNIGHT IN ARMOUR
Whenever I'm a shining Knight,
I buckle on my armour tight;
And then I look about for things,
Like Rushings-Out, and Rescuings,
And fighting all the Dragons there.
And sometimes when our fights begin,
I think I'll let the Dragons win ...
And then I think perhaps I won't,
Because they're Dragons, and I don't.
Now We Are Six