Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 449:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 449.

Today, superb planning takes us on a fast train trip. 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.

We sail along at 110 miles an hour -- sometimes accelerating to 150. Heavy industry, rice paddies, and blue tile roofs flicker by as we sweep from Kyoto to Tokyo. We're in the Shinkansen express train -- the "Bullet Train." The seats are spacious armchairs. A stewardess offers us our choice of coffee or green tea.

We've been seeing Zen Bhuddist shrines in Kyoto -- serene and austere. Just outside, we could've bought holographic postcards of the temples. That kind of high-tech tourist glitz speaks volumes about the changes we see everywhere.

Take these Shinkansen trains. They've changed transportation. The first leg of the system was finished way back in 1964. It went from Tokyo to Osaka. Since then the system has reached every major city in Japan and carried 3 billion passengers without an accident. The company brochure is obsessive on safety measures. Some of them are unexpected.

For example, trains have to take in a lot of recirculating air. During a snowstorm, a train moving over a hundred miles an hour hauls in a lot of snow. The Shinkansen trains have to carry huge separator systems to keep snow out.

Here's an even stranger one: Japan is earthquake country. Everything has to be built with that in mind. Even the great hundred-ton Kamakura Bhudda sits on shock absorbers, and it's over 700 years old. But how can an earthquake affect a train? The answer changes when you move with the speed of an airplane. Tracks even modestly dislocated by tremors would spell disaster.

So a network of seismographs reads earthquake information and relays it by satelite to the train. There are no communications lines to be cut by earthquakes. There's more: Big parts of the line run through tunnels. That way, grades are kept under two percent. Tracks have to bend very gently. A typical radius of curvature is two and a half miles or more.

Now the train slows into Tokyo station. We dismount in a swirl of people and disappear into the Tokyo subway system. Japan has picked her technological targets and aimed well. She builds exceptional cars and trains, but not airplanes. She makes superb audio systems, but we still lead in computers.

What the Shinkansen system represents is long-term thinking. Each leg has taken five to eleven years to build. Some of these trains are already a quarter of a century old and still unmatched in America. What was Japan's secret? It was to invest in something that could not and did not turn a profit until it had been running for some time. And that's what we must learn to do.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Information about the Shinkansen system came largely from a West Japan Railway Company brochure.

Readers interested in the comments on planning should see

Dertouzos, M.L., Lester, R.K., and Solow, R.M., Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989.


Made in Japan, Akio Morita and Sony. (with E.M. Reingold & M. Shimomura) New York: Penguin Books, a Signet Book, 1988.

For more on the Shinkansen Train, visit


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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