Today, an old handbook reminds us that we're
smarter than we think. 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 got this old Electric
Handbook for three-fifty in a used bookstore. It
cost a dollar in 1917. It has a lot to tell about
life before WW-I. It's written in
question-and-answer form. Over the title we read a
sensible little non sequitur: "The Thought is in
the Question. The Information is in the Answer."
This is Volume 7 of a 10-volume set. It tells about
AC wiring, power stations, and a new gadget called
the telephone. The rest of the set talks about
telegraphy, street cars, elevators, electric
motors, and such. It was typical of the times. My
Boy Scout Manual, published in 1916, tells how to
get a merit badge by making your own radio. The
word radio isn't used here, but Volume 8 talks
about wireless telephones.
As we read, we can only think how rigidly we
partition knowledge today. The scope is
astonishing. It explains electric theory along with
the engines that drive dynamos. It treats building
foundations, plant layout, and plumbing. It tells
how to put a leather belt back on a pulley when it
I like the part on telephones. The basic phone is a
wall box with a speaker in the middle. A hand
receiver hangs on a hook to the side. On the other
side is a crank for signaling the operator. Two
bells on top summon you when you have a call. The
bells are powered by two huge batteries in the box.
Those technologies were moving so quickly. Only 15
years earlier, my father came home from school to
find his Aunt Lizzie shouting into one of those
boxes. He'd never heard of the telephone. He
wondered what on earth she was doing.
Now the handbook shows how the new portable phone
works. Do you remember the black bakelite stand,
with the receiver on a hook and a wire to the bell
box on the wall? Finally, they show us one with a
dial. That was pretty new. The book doesn't have
too much to say about it.
So we read the questions: "How are party lines
run?" "How is long distance transmission made
possible?" They tell of a time when we could
understand things because we believed we could
understand. We trusted our ability to ask and
learn. And out of that came America's explosion
into technological leadership.
That's how we should still look upon the engines of
our ingenuity. For, after all, what one fool can do
another can also do. The inside of your telephone
has been miniaturized and sealed in plastic. But
understanding it is no less within your grasp than
it was in 1917. This old book reminds us how much
we really can know -- if we only ask.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds