Today, we learn to write. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We learned to write not long
before 3100 BC. The wheel was then only a few
hundred years old. Copper was just coming into use.
The technologies that would set the course of
civilization were all being created at roughly the
Surely writing was among the strangest of these. It
was the result of a great abstraction. First we
turned our thoughts into spoken words. Then we
invented a second means for handling our ideas. We
froze words into a lasting visual experience.
And yet this sequence may miss the point. That's
because writing flows as much from picture-painting
as it does from speech. And picture-painting had
already been around for 30,000 years when we took
up writing. Writing breaks away from painting, just
as it breaks away from speech. Both separate their
subjects from actual events.
For example, a picture of men hunting a lion puts
the actual event into an eternal present tense.
Suppose you want to say different things about the
event: They are hunting the lion. I would like to
hunt a lion. Four men once hunted a lion. Go out
and get me a lion. Stay downwind when you hunt
lions. The picture doesn't let you manipulate the
act. Both speech and writing abstract the elements
of an event or of a picture. They let you move the
elements around, like pieces of a puzzle.
The ancient Sumerian people began using a
pictographic writing in 3100 BC. They probably
didn't invent it. We're finding that various North
African people wrote just before the Sumerians did.
Egyptian pictographs show up about a hundred years
earlier. The Mande people of the western Sahara
also used streamlined pictographs that seem to date
back at least as far as that. Other North African
systems of picture writing are known. The first
writing seems to have been a match in the tinder
box of the mind. Whoever first thought of it, it
seized the imagination. Writing suddenly popped up
in many places.
I have my own reason for believing the African
claims over the Sumerian ones. That belief rises
out of my knowledge of invention. The Africans used
writing to honor the dead and to speak of the inner
self. The Sumerians used it to record the affairs
of business and management. That use lay far away
from the intent of either pictures or poetry.
Nothing as close to the human heart as writing is
could have been created only to record commerce.
The great inventions all come out of some far more
personal corner of our inner being.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A great deal is written about writing (start with
your encyclopedias). The African slant is given by
two articles in Blacks in Science, Ancient and
Modern (I. Van Sertima, ed.). New Brunswick:
Transaction Books, 1983.
Johnson, W.R., The Ancient Akan Script: A
Review of Sankofa. By Niangoran-Bouah, pp.
Winters, C-A., The Ancient Manding
Script. pp. 208-214.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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