Today, we try to judge a book by its contents
instead of its cover. 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.
So many of my friends like
to tell me about engineers. "Engineers are dull,"
they say. "Engineers are inarticulate." That sort
of thing used to make me angry. Now I'm a little
more sympathetic. I realize what it is they cannot
Long ago, I worked at the Pacific Car and Foundry
Company in Seattle. We made accessories for
tractors. We made winches, hitches, and booms for
I worked with a seasoned designer. He wore a white
shirt and a bow tie. He said almost nothing. You
saw his authority and imagination only when he bent
to a drawing board. Each time he put a pencil to
that great spread of blue lined paper, there
appeared some graceful machine that'd never been
I also worked at a drawing board, but this quiet
man outclassed me. It was humbling to watch new
machines pouring out of his mind. For years
afterward, all up and down Oregon and Washington,
I'd see his clean, compact tractor attachments.
They hauled logs and dug trenches -- laid pipe and
set posts. They improved the lives of millions of
people who looked at my friend and saw no more than
a clerkish fellow in a bow tie.
Today my wife handed me a magazine about new
technology. Maybe there was a story I could use. It
was frustrating. Here's an article about a
topologist at Bell Labs. Communication systems pose
problems like that of fitting spheres into a box.
We see lovely pictures of stacked spheres and
strangely sliced pies. But the math is too
intricate. The pictures are too complex. I cannot
tell it on the radio, so I turn the page.
Another designer makes robots for space vehicles.
The light-weight extensible arms are complex
accordion structures. His models are made of folded
paper. They're more graceful and delicate than
origami. But you can't
describe them when you're limited to the stunted
language of words.
I spend my days among people who live this life. I
know the invisibility of the paintings they paint
and the silence of the songs they sing. I've seen
the beauty of their quiet dreams.
That designer in Seattle was a happy man. He was
fulfilled. Oh, he faced problems. Not everything he
touched turned to gold. But beating problems is
just where creative people find pleasure.
So many people cannot see the things that old
designer could see. But no matter. For he was the
one building their civilization.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds