Today, we hide reality -- and then have trouble
finding it again. 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.
An odd anxiety hit us 90
years ago as our industries matured. Our first
machines had been used to make the things we'd once
made by hand -- clothing, furniture, and china. But
now our machines were creating other machines --
cars, locomotives, and telephones. We began
building a whole new synthetic world.
And the scale of machines became immense. Their
size led to a whole new kind of photography --
people sitting on machines. A 1910 photo might show
a 50-man crew strewn about a great turbine wheel
they'd made. We saw ourselves as ants crawling on
the synthetic output of a synthetic world.
Author Miles Orvell reminds us of the old Charlie
Chaplin movie, Modern Times. Chaplin
works on an assembly line. He's a human slave of
the machine. Only when he climbs inside it and
makes his communion
with its moving gears does he become fully
alive. He's only real when he admits he's part of
Our anxiety was about reality itself. Reality
became an American obsession. Coca-Cola has called
itself "The Real Thing" since 1940. But long before
that, it told consumers to "Get the Genuine."
Advertisers used that anxiety. "The Durham-Duplex
is a real razor," says one. Hires tells us they
make their soft drinks with "real root juices." The
slogans promised a glint of reality in an ersatz
The philosopher Santayana saw that our thinking
hadn't kept up with material change. He wrote, "The
American will inhabits the skyscraper. The American
intellect inhabits the colonial mansion." Sure, the
new machines were images cast by our minds. But we
still had a hard time making them part of modern
Society was changing too, and that aggravated our
anxiety. The machines were equalizers. They let the
lower classes have what only the upper classes once
had -- transportation, mechanical servants,
cleanliness, material decency. As machines shredded
the class system, the elite began asking which
people were real and which ones were synthetic.
If the world of 1910 was synthetic, what is the
world of the 1990s! But we've made peace with
imitations. We accept astroturf and heart implants.
The synthetic products of our minds -- our machines
-- are the reality of our age, and of the future.
Today, a new and serious anxiety is touching us. We
can't figure out how to accept imitation and still
keep some trace of our lovely old natural
environment at the same time. If making peace with
imitation leads us to overlook nature, that really
is cause to be anxious.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds